Another Refugee’s Story: Leon Goodhart and the Country Club Shoe Store

(originally published in 2010 in The Brookside Story: Shops of Every Necessary Character, and in the original KCBackstories FB page, 5/23/19. The following is adapted from the book version)

The Country Club Shoe Store – A Family Enterprise

This bit of history is not distant to me, though it grows more distant with each passing year. But it was the focus of my writing efforts for about six months, an all-consuming project that began in 2011 when a friend – more than a friend, a hero of mine – asked me to help him collect the bits of his life’s story to be shared with his children and grandchildren. I agreed, not only because he was a friend or hero, but because I knew something of his story, and it was worth telling. His name was Leon Goodhart, and for years he owned and operated the Country Club Shoe Store in Brookside, while also owning and operating commercial buildings on Brookside Plaza, including the flat-iron building at the corner of 63rd Street. I was a tenant in that building, but like everyone he met, any relationship you had with Leon – customer, employee, tenant, vendor, or random introduction – our acquaintance quickly turned into friendship. He was warm, funny, patient, imperturbable, wise and sentimental. Leon Goodhart was the most aptly named human being I’ve ever met – the bearing of a lion, the heart of a saint.

I knew much of Leon’s story, for I had included the shoe store as a feature in The Brookside Story: Shops of Every Necessary Character. From that I learned about the rest of Leon’s story – that of a Holocaust survivor and an exemplar of what we used to think of as the American immigrant dream. Understandably, he did not talk much about the former, and was too modest to think of his life in terms of the latter. I couldn’t have been more proud that he asked for my help, and so in the fall of 2011 we began.

Jacob Hyman left Poland in 1908, arriving in Kansas City to open a shoe repair shop at 31st Street and Holmes Road, near the center of Kansas City’s Jewish community. His business grew, and in 1922 he moved to the small commercial center at 59th Street and Brookside Boulevard. It was at this location that he came began to sell shoes, specifically childrens’ shoes. He soon built a good following, which brought him to the attention of the Nichols Company. In 1934, they enticed him to relocate to 122 W. 63rd Street. It was newly finished space – Hyman would be the first tenant – and in a prime location at the center of the shops.

Jake Hyman had married late in life, and had no children. He had two brothers in Kansas City, but also a niece still in Poland. After the invasion of Poland in 1939 he lost track of her family. Only after the war would he learn that his niece and her son, Leon, had spent the war in a labor camp.  Leon’s father had not survived. The Hyman brothers began preparations for bringing them to America.

Young Leon arrived first, in June of 1949, somewhat reluctantly. After the war, he tried to convince his mother that they should relocate to Israel, which seemed to him an exciting opportunity. His mother, however was determined to be with her family in Kansas City. His uncle’s picked him up at Union Station late on a Friday afternoon, and he was whisked away in the speeding car as the uncles rushed to get him home before the Sabbath began.

Leon ended up living in his uncle Jacob’s house, and was treated as a son. His aunt insisted they enroll Leon in Paseo High School right away, even though he was already nineteen and the school year all but over. She reasoned the best thing they could do for Leon was to see that he fit in. He knew some English, but that would need to be improved, of course. And he would need to make friends and learn about America. It was at her suggestion that he changed his German surname, Gutharc, to its English translation. He became Leon Goodhart.

Leon would continue with school for a while. In the fall he enrolled in Southwest High School, and later he attended a bit of college. All the while, he worked part-time for his uncle. He was thrilled with the opportunity. America was “the land I had dreamed about,” he said, and working side-by-side with his uncle at the shoe store seemed a good life. He recognized that his uncle, already a successful businessman for forty years, could teach him more than any college. Leon also saw the high regard others had for his uncle – both merchants and customers, many of whom were among the Country Club District’s most elite residents.

Leon was a natural at the business. He was bright and hard working, and had a manner the customers liked. He had a strong business ethic taken both from his uncle and his father, who ran a trucking business back in Poland, always on the basis of a handshake between gentlemen. Leon, too, was always as good as his word. He was well-liked among the merchants, and quickly became involved in the mercantile life of Brookside.

At the store, Leon learned a great deal from his uncle, but he tried to make his own mark on the store, too, though often he came up against his uncle’s more traditional views. On small matters, as time went by he would make changes according to his “new” ideas on his uncle’s day off. Many times, when Jacob would return, he would let Leon have his way, once he could see the logic of the idea. But Jacob Hyman had his own visions for the store. He already owned a small retail building with two store fronts, at 6320/6322 Brookside Plaza, built in the late 1930s. With Leon now at the store, Hyman had the opportunity to buy the adjacent property. He built another retail space at 6318 Brookside Plaza, intending to eventually move the shoe store. But through a miscommunication with his friend, a real estate broker who handled leases for his property next door, a lease was signed with another merchant. Hyman never moved the shoe store there. After a while, he began to see the wisdom of leasing the space for the store, and keeping the other property as a second source of income. Over the years, those two buildings were home to such Brookside notables as Crick Camera, Le Chateaubriand, Dos Hombres, and the first Bagel & Bagel.

Leon was in Kansas City only two years before he was drafted. He served with the medical corps in Korea, even before he became a citizen. Shortly after he returned, he married and started his own family. He came back to work with his Uncle Jake at the shoe store, until Hyman retired in 1958. With no other heirs, Leon bought the business and property from his uncle. By now, he had become the venerable merchant of Brookside his uncle had been before him, and the Country Club Shoe Store was starting on its third generation of customers.

As successful as the Country Club Shoe Store had been under Jacob Hyman, it was the post-war baby boomer years that put the business indelibly on the Brookside map. A seemingly endless stream of mothers and children came through the doors, shopping for back-to-school shoes, Christmas shoes, Easter shoes, gym shoes and ballet shoes. A trip to the Country Club Shoe Store marked the passing of the seasons and the special times in a child’s life.  Even then, the next generation of the family was getting its first taste of the business. Leon’s oldest son Doug spent Friday afternoons passing out toys to the children who came to the shop. He learned other lessons from his father, too, for he kept his earnings in a savings account in a Brookside bank.

Now that the Country Club Shoe Store was his, Goodhart made some changes. He saw several opportunities. One was in providing orthopedic shoes for children, a market the store covered so well that not only was it the store to which orthopedists most commonly referred their patients, Leon was frequently invited to work with some of the orthopedic practices in town, instructing new doctors on the corrective benefits of children’s footwear. Similarly, when his customers started asking for ballet shoes, he bought for that market, too. And he expanded his locations.  In the 1940s, Jacob Hyman had opened a second store on the Country Club Plaza, but the war time rationing of leather had made it hard for him to stock one store, let alone two, and so he closed it and kept his focus on Brookside. In the 1960s, Goodhart opened a second store again, this time in the newly opened Corinth Shopping Center at 83rd Street and Mission Road in Kansas.  Though that store operated for 28 years, it exclusively catered to the dancewear customers he had first cultivated in Brookside. By that time, his daughter Julie was operating the business. In his final years at the store, Goodhart recognized the times were changing for the shoe business. Many of his long time competitors had closed. The children’s market wasn’t enough to keep in business. He started again to sell adult shoes, being the first to introduce quality brand names like New Balance to the Kansas City market. But one thing never changed. Goodhart always maintained high standards of service and brought to his customers in Brookside the very finest quality product available.

When Leon Goodhart finally retired in 1995, he turned the business over to his son Doug, the same son who had worked there as a child passing out toys. Just one year short of its seventieth year in Brookside, Doug Goodhart made the difficult decision to relocate the store to the Metcalf 103 shopping center. But Leon Goodhart stayed in Brookside as a property owner, purchasing 6314 Brookside Plaza from Jacobs Properties. He relished the role of landlord, and was a permanent fixture on Brookside Plaza, minding his buildings and serving his tenants. Leon passed away suddenly and peacefully in 2012, creating a hole in the heart of the Brookside community. The following year, the family and the Brookside Business Association came together on the small plaza at the north end of Leon’s beloved flat iron building to remember Goodhart by giving Brookside Plaza the honorary designation of “Leon Goodhart Way,” a wholly proper recognition of the legacy Goodhart left behind in the community of Brookside.

(Photo: Leon Goodhart en route to the United States from Europe, 1949)

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