Bell’s was started in 1922 by Walter and Mamie Harder Bell. They both worked at Aurora Mills on East Webb Avenue and had tried starting several businesses in an effort to get out of the mill. After trying their hand at a café and a grocery in east Burlington, they bought shoe repair equipment from Landis Machine Company and hired a cobbler. In the afternoons after school Walter and Mamie’s son Raymond apprenticed with the cobbler they hired. After the first several years they were able to take over the shop and leave the mill. The original shoe shop was across the street from the current location in a wooden building that has long since been torn down. The three earliest pictures we have of the original building are below. The first shows Walter, Mamie and their daughter Edna in 1925. The second and third pictures show the outside of the wooden building with the sign “Electric Shoe Shop.” Currently B&H trophy is in the building where the “Cash Store Co.” was in the 1920’s
Early in 1929 Walter built a building for the store across Davis Street from the original location. The building was twice the size of the original location and had a second story for the Bell family to live in. After they built the building with the onset of the Great Depression in October 1929, they began to worry about paying for it so they rented half the retail space to The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company – otherwise known as A&P Grocery. By the time A&P’s lease ended in 1932, Bell’s had grown enough to take over the grocery store’s space.
If you look closely at this picture you can see the awning for Bell’s is only over half the front of the building. The sign for the A&P is over the other half. The bike out front is how they made deliveries and pick-ups for the shoe shop. As business improved the bike was replaced with a 1930’s era belt driven motorcycle, known as a “Servi-Cycle.” Eventually Raymond sold Servi-Cycles in the store. Surprisingly in the 1930’s business was good enough that Walter and Raymond had a basement dug under half of the building so they could move the shoe repair shop downstairs and have more retail space for clothing and shoes upstairs. In 1939 Raymond married Reba Johnson and she joined him in the business as the bookkeeper.
By the 1940’s it was time to grow again. According to family legend, Walter and Raymond bought the vacant lot next to the store on the west side and put a roof between the store building and the café, making a new building for the shoe shop and leaving yet more retail space in the basement of the main store building. During the mid-1940’s Walter decided to retire and Raymond bought full ownership of the store.
As you can see, Bell’s has been (and still is) an ever changing place. The 1950’s saw the introductions of new and interesting product lines. It also saw the addition of a parking lot next to the store.
With the addition of the parking lot in the late 1950’s, the front of the store needed a remodel. It no longer made sense to have an entrance only on the street, so Raymond changed the original front doors and windows to make adjacent doors on the front corner of the store. He also added on to the store again in 1959 and 1969, almost doubling its size.
When Mamie Bell passed away in 1959 and Walter Bell in 1966 they had seen their little shoe repair shop experience tremendous growth and success in the midst of a great depression and a great world war. The city of Burlington rejunivinated the 700 block of East Davis street in the 1970’s adding street lights and planters. They also added additional parking behind the stores across from Bell’s. During this time Raymond was joined in running the business by his sons Jim and Charles.
In the early 1980’s Raymond was ready to retire and Charles bought the business from him. The 80’s were a booming time for the US economy and Bell’s was no exception. Work boots, western wear and acid wash jeans were all very popular. RedWing boots joined the classic Herman Survivor line. Charles added a computerized embroidery machine to the alterations department to replace the old chain stitch machine. Sadly with growth comes necessary change and people no longer wanted their shoes repaired as often so Charles realized it was time to close the shoe repair shop.
In 1995 Charles hired the fouth generation of the Bell family to work at the store, his niece Melissa. But sadly 1998 saw the death of both Raymond and Reba By 2000 Charles decided he wanted to retire from retail so he sold the store to Melissa. Since then the store has seen the explosion of Rocky boots and hunting apparel. Carhartt work clothing has largely replaced Wrangler and Pointer as Alamance county staples. As the jobs in the area have changed so has the work clothing, so Bell’s added medical scrubs and Dansko ladies clogs. Advertsing has changed as well, so instead of seeing Bell’s ads in the newspaper, you may now hear Bell’s ads on FM radio, receive emails or check out current happenings on Facebook and the website.
As Alamance county’s oldest soft goods retailer, Bell’s is a staple in the community. With eyes always to the future we look forward to celebrating our 100th anniversary in a few short years.