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133-year-old North Bay shoe business ending to focus on antiques

Deegan's Shoe Store was the oldest independent shoe retailer in Canada

After 133 years, Deegan's Shoe Store on Main St. will make a huge change in focus later this year as it stops selling shoes.

It will stay open, but will concentrate instead on its antique business, says owner Pat Diegel.

Deegan's Shoe Store Ltd is the oldest independent shoe retailer in Canada, and also is the oldest business in North Bay.

The iconic downtown business has been in the same family for four generations starting with the founder John Deegan, to the current owners Pat and Ralph Diegel. The store was built in 1889 and has always been a shoe store.

Now, health issues with Ralph have forced the couple to make changes.

"In the last six months, we've had our shoes on sale, so the store will only be selling antiques by the end of the year," explains Pat.

As word of the change leaks out, interest is growing.

"Ralph gets people almost every day that have bought shoes from him forever, come in to see how he's doing and checking things out. Some are buying shoes because they are afraid they aren't going to get them anymore, with the quality he has."

But though change is inevitable Pat adds, "We aren't going anywhere."

The pair still works six days a week, and have noticed that people are sad to see the end of an era approaching.

"They are," says Pat reflectively. "Several people have said 'Oh, where are we going to get our shoes? You always have the best quality,' this kind of thing. It's the end of an era really."

Ralph, now almost 96, has been with the store since 1946.

"It is sad that it's closing, but it's just a health issue. That's what's happened here."

The store threw a party when Ralph hit 90.

See: Ralph Diegel reminisces at 90th birthday celebration

He jokes that when he hits 100 they will throw "one hell of a party!"

Ralph says he doesn't know his secret to longevity, but has never smoked and says a prayer before he goes to bed every night.

See: City's oldest business celebrates by issuing coin

Pat says the success of the antique part of the store is the variety.

"People who come in say it's like a department store because we have everything from really fine things to really rough and primitive things."

"Soup to nuts," interjects Ralph, smiling.

"Almost everybody can find something that they are interested in. We sell a lot of paper stuff. We sell fine jewellery. We sell bottles, and china and silver, toys and books."

Upstairs is a collection of old license plates and tools and quilts. And almost all of the items are bought locally.

"I don't buy online and I don't buy at auctions," explains Pat. "People call when they are downsizing and I go to their homes. We get phone calls every day. We try to be helpful because a lot of people have no idea what to do with things they inherit."

Pat tries to help people, even if there are no items she wants, suggesting other options.

"If we can't use it I try to suggest where they can, because there is no way we can carry everything that is offered to us because we get a tremendous amount of things coming through the door."

She also gives credit to the loyal staff that has been at the store over the years, joking that working in the store is "good for aging."

"Gail Dumoulin has worked for Ralph forever. (since 1946 according to Ralph) She is currently off because she fell about a week ago and broke her hip and she's in the hospital," explained Pat. "But she'll be back. She just had her 89th birthday but still worked three days a week. She's planning to come back when she gets on her feet. She can run circles around us when she's here. She's really good.

"We laugh about it because Ralph is 96, I'm 83 and she's 89, so we're the old folks running the store."