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It was a mid-weekday afternoon on the quiet Neve Sha'anan pedestrian mall near the old central bus station in Tel Aviv. More than 10 years ago, before the new bus station began operating, the area was bustling with activity and shoppers. Today, the street is the stomping ground for clusters of foreign workers sitting on white plastic lawn furniture, huddling over their beer and swatting flies. Shop owners eager for business enthusiastically beckon prospective clients to buy kitchenware, clothing and shoes.
Times have certainly changed, says Elli Shirazi, one shopowner with newfound fame among Tel Aviv's elite crowd of young fashionistas - his name is on the tip of young women's lips. His shop, Boka'ee in Neve Sha'anan, is not quite what one would expect as the setting for high-fashion footwear.
Shirazi has inherited one of Israel's best-kept secrets: Lazar shoes. Some time next month, he and his business partner and friend Rahamim Saidian will open the boxes of 10,000 pairs of fine leather shoes and boots dating back to the Fifties, in their new warehouse.
About six months ago, the friends purchased unsold stock from a shoe importer neighbor, known only as Lazar, who had been ordering shoe samples and stock from Italy and Germany since the 1950s when he immigrated to Israel from Germany, they say. For decades, Lazar had kept his shoes in a large store in the back of Rehov Neve Sha'anan. With only a trickle of sales in recent years, compounded by the outdated style of the shoes, Lazar couldn't sell all the old stock by the time he retired in his late eighties.
Leah, 22, a student from Haifa who now lives in Tel Aviv, met Lazar before he retired. She had seen a young woman in the Rehov Sheinkin area wearing "stylish shoes" and wanted to know where she bought them. Leah and her friends found themselves in the old central bus station area, rifling through dirty, dusty boxes that contained dated footwear - shoes that could fetch hundreds of shekels at vintage shoe shops, she says.
"Lazar is an old, blind man," says Leah. "He's sweet, but persistent in sales."
The shoes have apparently been preserved for a few decades. There are snakeskin pumps, classic brown leather sandals, cool red heels with diamonds from the Eighties and a few Parisian pink-and-white classics.
"You see elaboration, such as two colors on the shoes and leather in the shape of an 'X.' These are details you just don't see in shoes nowadays, especially since the Israeli shoe scene is homogeneous and narrow, with the big clunky style. And if you do find things nicer, they are very pricy," says Leah. "Lazar's shoes are better than the shoes out of my price range, and better than cheap shoes. The only downside is that they need to be fixed and the heels secured," she notes.
But Leah and her four friends didn't seem to mind that they would have to repair their new shoes (each bought about 10 pairs) nor that some of the shoes leave traces of tar and sticky glue on their feet after wear (due to the adhesives and synthetic parts of the shoes that have disintegrated over time).
Stores in Tel Aviv, she says, have also been buying the shoes and selling them marked up by a few hundred shekels.
"They have an imprint that says 'Lazar' on the soles. They are just really cool stuff. I know that the design school Shenkar bought hundreds of pairs for fashion shows and to finish off outfits," she says. "I'm just sorry I didn't buy boots," she laments.
"I love clothes and shoes. I have a shoe fetish. I think shoes are a very good complement for outfits - they give a perfect twist," explains Leah, who owns about 100 pairs of footwear.
After five hours of rummaging through Lazar's old store, she emerged triumphantly with six pairs. "I got my hands and feet dirty from the dust and tar," she beams, showing off her new cr me colored sandals.
Leah plans to be at the opening of Saidian and Shirazi's warehouse next month. The people interested in Lazar's shoes, she says, are like her friends, "hard-core consumers of fashion. These are the same people who buy at designer stores at very high prices and second-hand stores that offer great finds. They are people who devote a large part of their energy to looking special and good, copying the designer look. Lazar's shoes are particularly fitting today because the pump is back, and so is the classic feminine look."
Two women in their early 20s show up at the door of the Boka'ee shoe shop. With wide eyes, they ask hesitantly, "Elli?" as though they were trying out a code word for entry into a secret world. "We heard you have the shoes," one of them says.
After an hour in one of several storerooms, the two emerge not able to find the boots another friend had bought. "We can help you organize your shoes," they volunteer, hoping to get their hands on the boxes in the locked warehouses.
But Shirazi isn't fazed by their enthusiasm. They will have to wait until the new warehouse is organized.
Admittedly, the two men don't know too much about the Lazar legacy they are continuing. A newspaper clipping about Lazar's shop is taped to the wall, but it's covered by other mementos.
The whole country used to buy shoes from Lazar, says Saidian, especially because he offered shoes in sizes ranging from 33 to 43 that were 95% leather. "Lazar was one of the first to bring shoes to the country," he notes.
Lazar closed his shop some time last year. "He wasn't feeling good," says Shirazi, not wanting to elaborate.
Saidian and Shirazi, originally from Iran and seemingly worlds away from the fashion-obsessed Sheinkinites, don't really understand the hype that Lazar shoes are causing. Anyway, they agree, they have seen too many strange things in Israel over their lifetimes to be fazed by girls and shoes.
"All things return again," says Shirazi nonchalantly, who offers an exchange on the shoes if the customer is not satisfied. "It doesn't seem to bother them that the color is falling off some of the shoes," he says.
When the warehouse is ready, there might not only be shoes to enjoy. "We will also ask Elli to sing," jokes Saidian. "He was once a singer at weddings."
Those interested are asked not to go to Shirazi's shop but to call in order to put their name on a list to be notified about the warehouse opening (0525-735559). Prices will be about NIS 50 to 100, but expect to pay an additional NIS 20 per pair for repairs.