By Susanne Beck
When the phone picks up at Tip Top Shoes, 155 West 72nd Street (Columbus and Amsterdam), the options offered sound like those of a large family, not a retail operation.
“For Aaron…press 15; For Danny, press 11; For Lester, press 20; For Kerry, press 23; For Margo, press 24; For Randolph, press 25.”
At Tip Top, which calls itself “New York’s premier shoe store since 1940,” it’s both.
Lester Wasserman, 48, the current owner, is the fourth-generation shoe retailer in the family, still working side by side with his father, Danny, 78, who took over the shop on the Upper West Side from his own dad, Max, in 1980. Max learned the trade from his dad, the first in the family to own a shoe store in Europe.
It was Max, who emigrated to America in the 1950s, and who ultimately brought the family operation to the Upper West Side, buying the Tip Top business – and building – in 1964, 24 years after the shop’s founding.
Today, Danny and Lester are considered legends in the trade, true “Shoe Dogs,” the industry term for revered veterans who have “lived the business and made a lasting contribution.” Thanks to Danny’s “nose for the market,” the store has a reputation for identifying shoe trends before they take hold, and developing exceptional – and exceptionally valuable – partnerships with brands that would become well-known nationally and internationally. Among them: Birkenstock, Ecco, Mephisto, MBT, and Ugg. In March 2021, Footwear Plus magazine called Danny “the shoe industry’s uber talent scout.”
As a fourth-generation leader, Lester has kept his eye firmly on upholding the family’s trademark exceptional customer service. “We have the world’s greatest salespeople,” he says. Most members of his floor crew have worked at Tip Top for more than 10 years, many “well north of 15,” he adds.
“They’re masters at what they do. Selling shoes sounds easy, but it is brutal. It’s super labor intensive. There’s a lot of up and downstairs. [W]e have 1,000 women’s styles, maybe 1,200 on the floor. Making the connection between that customer and that shoe isn’t easy.”
On a recent weekday, staff members were busy tending to more than a dozen customers: listening closely, making suggestions, and taking mental notes, while doing the shoe-store equivalent of the yoga required of all salespeople: bending down, leaning in, pointing and reaching toward the walls of product, before bouncing off to the back of the store and returning, balancing tall stacks of models, sizes, and colors. It’s exhausting just to behold.
30-year sales veteran, Harold Dominici, is one of the long timers. “Check me out on Yelp,” he says with a wink, as he moves swiftly from one customer to the next. “I’m a salsa dancer too!” he exclaims over his shoulder, still moving. After owning several shoe stores of his own in the Bronx in his 20’s, Harold moved to Tip Top and never looked back. “I get up early in the morning and run here because I love what I do,” he says from behind his sagging mask. Geena, who has been shopping at Tip Top since 1982, says, “When you have somebody who really knows what they’re doing, it makes a difference.”
Juan Diaz is another long termer — 23 years. He had been a bank trainee after college. The money was decent, the career path clear, but the work was stultifying. It drove me crazy,” Juan recalls. He got a call from a former colleague who was working at a Thom McCann store downtown and urged him to come. He took the leap – and caught the bug. Several years later, he landed at Tip Top and never left. “It’s like the saying goes, ‘when you love what you do, you don’t work a day in your life.’”
Lester remembers that the Upper West Side was “rough” when he first started on the floor during high school in the late 70s. “The neighborhood has changed so much over the last 30 years, and the shoe trade, too, as a result of the internet.” He says the store will also change a bit, with an upgrade planned for early 2023.
As for the next generation, Lester’s daughter, who is in high school, is currently getting her own shoes wet with some time on the sales floor. But there is no pressure. “My father never pushed me to do this,” Lester explains. Despite the 24/7 that come with running a family operation, he says he has no regrets. “I like the excitement. Every day is something different.”