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Famous by proximity, Detroit shoe repair shop burns

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

Detroit — One of those places that's well known by proximity, the shoe repair shop next door to Lafayette Coney Island, was decimated by a fire Thursday afternoon.

The owner was decimated, too. Andy Campbell opened Tip Toe Shoe Repair in 1994, "and everything that burned," he said, "is part of the history of my life."

Andy Campbell surveys the wreckage of his Tip Toe Shoe Repair, next-door neighbor to Lafayette Coney Island in downtown Detroit. His little piece of the American dream was ravaged by fire Thursday afternoon.

He was leaning against an SUV parked on Michigan Avenue, trying not to look at the tiny, blackened storefront with an inch of water on the floor. As friends and relatives came by to offer hugs, the smell of shoe polish hung in the air.

Tip Toe is only 600 square feet in a city of 143 square miles, but it's made a big enough impact that the regulars have literally gone out of their way to keep it open during the pandemic.

"You find out who your true customers are," Campbell said in his Jamaican lilt — the downtown workers who kept dropping off shoes even when they were working from home and the shoes maybe didn't need new heels yet.

The most recent arrivals among those shoes were destroyed, along with the new shoes, hats and belts he managed to find space to display and sell.

"Everything is gone," he said, and he shook his head — black cap, blue mask, graying beard. "The machines are gone. It's a hollow place."

The fire Thursday turned Andy Campbell's piece of the American dream into twisted wreckage. He vows to rebuild and reopen.

Half a dozen pieces of fire equipment responded around 2:45 p.m. when his assistant dialed for help.

"There's a fire," she'd told him, and he admits his first thought was that she was overreacting. "Then I go look, and the fire was uncontrollable."

He tried to douse it with a bucket of water from the sink, but the blaze only snarled and singed the hair on his arms. Soon, smoke was coming out on the Lafayette Avenue side of the mostly empty building, where Walter's Pipe Shop and the Arcade Bar used to be.

"We had a little bit of smoke downstairs," reported Abdo Saleh, part-owner of Lafayette Coney, but customers only go to the basement if they need the bathroom and the restaurant stayed open.

The shoe repair kept burning, with its polish, sprays, solvents, thinner and rags fueling the flames. 

Campbell bought the former Michigan Shoe Repair 26 years ago from an owner who'd had enough just as a young man from Montego Bay was yearning to have a foothold.

A shoemaker back home, he'd come to Detroit when his girlfriend from Jamaica moved to Canada. She left him stranded, but then one day he was checking out at Farmer Jack and he started flirting with a woman one line over.

He and Cassandra exchanged phone numbers in the parking lot and they've been married almost 30 years, just about half his life.

She works at Tip Toe, too, along with their daughter, but he's the one who kept it open six days a week and then came in on Sunday with the door closed to catch up.

The door and windows were being covered with boards Thursday afternoon.

Tony Rushlow, 36, of OnSite Solutions was done for the day and home in Lincoln Park when Campbell's insurance company called.

"Any time there's an emergency, we drop what we're doing and go," Rushlow said. As he drilled bolts into a sheet of plywood, Campbell wondered what he'd be doing next.

Ultimately, he said, he'll regroup and reopen. Friday, he figured, he'd probably come to work, or at least come by.

It's where he's always gone, and he doesn't know where else to be.

nrubin@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @nealrubin_dn