Our thanks to Angelo Kontis for his help with this post.
Hudson Shoe Rebuilders was more than just a shoe repair store. It was also a variety store, selling inexpensive socks, shoes, shirts, and other sundries to residents of Albany’s rooming house district. At the back of the store, Greek immigrants could find cheese, olives, and oil imported from their native country. On Election Day, the store served as a polling place. On other days, it was where constituents could find or leave messages for Ward 14 committeeman, Charley Diamond.
Lazarus Kontis started repairing shoes in 1913 at the age of 21. That year, he opened a small store at 54 High Street, in partnership with his nephew Nicholas. Both men were Greek immigrants from the Pontos region of Turkey. Nick was slightly older than his uncle and likely taught him the trade.
In 1916, the store moved from High Street to 168 Hudson Avenue. According the Times Union, the new “shoe shining parlor and electric shoe repair store” was “furnished in mahogany” and featured “every up-to-date appliance.” It even included a hat-cleaning department, supervised by Lazarus.
Nick promoted the new store by claiming that he (and by extension Lazarus, misidentified in the story as a brother) was “born to become a shoemaker.” Indeed, according to Nick, the family name (Koundourianes) meant shoemaker in the Pontian Greek dialect.
The following year, Nick moved to Brooklyn, leaving Lazarus in charge of the store. By that time, Lazarus was likely ready to take the lead. He was also ready to marry. In 1918, Lazarus wed Anna Coumarides (aka Cameron) in New York City. Her mother moved to Albany to live with the young couple.
Perhaps prompted by the desire for more privacy or for greater convenience, in 1924, Lazarus and Anna purchased property a few doors down from the shoe repair store. They may have been planning for children. We will never know their motive, because they divorced soon after. Anna took possession of 162 Hudson, and Lazarus continued to work at 168.
After the divorce was finalized in 1926, Anna began building a new 2-story structure, with storefront below and 3-bedroom apartment above. Meanwhile, Lazarus appears to have been more concerned with matrimony. The following year, he traveled to Greece to marry 19-year-old Sophia Hionithou. Sophie was born in Turkey, but due to the recent expulsion of Pontian Greeks, she was living in Katerini, a town that was home to many refugee families. Lazarus’s second marriage, arranged by the wife of his brother Vasileos, proved happy and enduring.
Anna, by contrast, appears to have been a poor judge of both contractors and lovers. In 1927, Albany’s Superintendent of Buildings ordered reconstruction of the entire first floor of 162 Hudson, due to the builder’s failure to follow plans filed with the city. In January 1929, Anna was in court, bringing a breach of promise to marry suit against a local restaurant owner. (The story made the front page of the Times Union two days running.) Four months later, Anna sold 162 Hudson to her ex-husband. She and her parents appear to have left Albany soon after.
In 1930, Lazarus and Sophie, with their young daughter Despina, moved into the second floor apartment at 162 Hudson, across the street from where Charles Fine would later open Dinty Moore’s Tavern. Replacing Lazarus’s former store at 168 Hudson was Liberty Cash Market (a butcher store). Later James Loftus Jr. opened the Hudson Arms Tavern at the same location.
The Kontis family lived at 162 Hudson for more than thirty years, until construction of the Empire State Plaza forced them to leave. This is where their two youngest children, Demetra and Angelo, were born. It’s where Sophie practiced English with the help of the tutor that she and a group of Greek women pooled their money to hire. The women met weekly in the Kontis family’s living room. Down below in the store, Lazarus presided over meetings of the local Pontos Society.
Every morning except Sunday, Lazarus would walk down the stairs from the family’s apartment to the store below. As they grew older, the children helped out. Angelo remembers sweeping the shop floor, running errands, shining shoes, selling sundries, and designing the window display. He even did a bit of bookkeeping. After hours, the store became Angelo’s study hall.
On Sundays, Lazarus attended services at St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Church, three blocks south of the family’s home. Sophie and the children sometimes joined him, but often, they headed east to First Methodist, where Sophie was a member of the Woman’s Society of Christian Service. Sophie was also active in Philoptochos, a Greek Orthodox philanthropic women’s organization. And three days a week after “American school,” the children attended classes on Greek language and culture at St. Sophia. The whole family took part in Greek independence celebrations and other events at the church, including a 1938 Halloween party and political rally sponsored by the Greek Democratic Club, at which Demetra was photographed beside New York State Senate candidate, Erastus Corning 2nd.
Like most of his neighbors, Lazarus was a lifelong Democrat. In the 1952, he chastised his daughter Despina, after she voted for Republican Dwight Eisenhower. (According to Angelo, a poll watcher alerted their father to Despina’s perfidy.) This loyalty was likely good for business, since customers were sure to drop by on Election Day or whenever they needed a favor. Any trouble from State police or election officials was easily dispelled, as in 1938, when alderman William F. Reilly was arrested at 162 Hudson for handing out four $1-bills to voters as they left the polls. The following day, a friendly judge released him.
On March 27, 1962, the Kontis family was shocked to learn that their home and business had been appropriated by the State of New York. Furthermore, they were upset by how little the State offered in compensation. (The initial offer was $9,200, the final settlement, $13,850.) Demetra spoke for her family when she wrote Governor Nelson Rockefeller on April 12, 1963. She pointed out that the State’s appraisal was based on the mistaken assumption that the structure was the same age and condition as the surrounding structures. She explained that “in contrast to” neighboring properties, “many of which are derelict,” 162 Hudson had been “well maintained.” But most importantly, the State’s offer was unfair, because it failed to provide compensation for the cost of her father’s lost livelihood.
The loss was not simply a monetary blow, it was also an emotional trauma, particularly for Lazarus. In the fall of 1963, the family moved from 162 Hudson to a two-flat on Myrtle Avenue in Pine Hills. But every morning, Lazarus still kept trying to walk down the stairs to the now non-existent store below. This loss appears to have triggered or accelerated a decline in health, as it had in Ken Hunter’s case. In August 1966, three years after the move, Lazarus died, institutionalized and suffering from dementia.
Note: The interior photograph at the beginning of this post is from Girolamo Antico’s shoe repair store at 126 Eagle. NYS Archives.