Words by Kaves One – Lordz of Brooklyn
Photos by Craig Wetherby
Uncle Frank was born in 1929 in Alí Terme, a small, poor beach town right outside of Messina, Sicily. He and his identical twin brother, Carmelo were born one minute apart. They were the youngest of eight children, six brothers and two sisters. After World War II, at age 14, Frank and Carmelo went to Messina to work for their older brother, Gianni, as shoemaker apprentices.
In their leisure time Carmelo and Frank would take the train back home to the beach. At 19-year-old, Carmelo went to search for more work in Milan. He got a job at Ferragemo shoe company making custom shoes. Shortly after, Carmelo opened his own shop making and repairing custom shoes. Frank soon joined Carmelo and they worked together in the shop. At age 21, according to Italian law, a man had to enter the military. In the case of male twins, only one twin had to join. Frank volunteered to serve and went to Verona for training. He served his duty on the island of Gaeta as an army jail guard. Gaeta jail was notorious for its horrible conditions. Before his 18 month tenure was up he reached the rank of Corporal.
Upon release from the military, Frank went back to Milan where his brother, Rocco, was now a police officer. He continued working at the shoe shop with Carmelo. At 23, Frank and Carmelo went on a mid-August vacation back to their home town. This is where Frank met his wife, Domenica. The couple was married and six months later they moved to America settling in Brooklyn, NY. Two years later Frank returned to Italy to convince Carmelo to move to the United States. Carmelo gave the store to his older brother, Rocco, and went with Frank to the U.S. Upon their arrival, they immediately set up shop.
Carmelo had the idea to go into the sneaker business. He had a friend in Milan who sold the vulcanizing machinery to manufacture sneakers. Carmelo and Frank hooked up with two business men/shoe salesmen and raised $50,000 to start their sneaker business. At the time sneakers were only used in schools for gym class and it was very difficult to put sneakers on the market. But Carmelo and Frank thought there might be a future for sneakers. It took about six months for the 12 machines to be imported from Milan. During which time they formed the company ACIMS Manufacturing and made all of their contacts for the materials, obtaining the rubber from BF Goodrich Company. They named the sneaker brand Hi-Jo.
The sneakers were made in assorted colors and styles. The company lasted for approximately three years with product placed in various shoe stores, and department stores such as Macy’s. The sneakers were wholesaling for $1.25 and retailing for $3.25. When popularity for sneakers grew, so did big business and their small Brooklyn company could no longer compete with the 99 cent competitor. The company folded in 1962. At that time, Carmelo went to work as a foreman for Accurate Sneaker Company, which was a bigger sneaker factory that produced 3,500 pairs of sneakers per day in two shifts. But even this factory had to eventually close due to the cheaper priced sneakers being imported from Japan and China.
Carmelo then made it into the Tin Knocker Union and worked for five years on the construction of the World Trade Center and also Trump Tower.
After the close of ACIMS, Frank opened Frank’s Shoe Repair in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. At that time, the neighborhood consisted primarily of Italians, Irish and Norwegians. Then a second wave of Puerto Rican and Dominican immigrants settled in. As the city changed and poverty set into Sunset Park, violence and drug trafficking soon followed. Sunset Park became a very dangerous place in the 1970s and 80s. The crack epidemic plagued the neighborhood. But Frank’s place stayed the same. A visit to his shop will take you back in time, from the tin ceilings to the piles of shoes. Some shoes are packed still awaiting pick-up by their owners since 1962!
His loyal patrons from generation to generation, from Italians to Mexicans still frequent Frank’s shop. Frank speaks Italian and Spanish. As he helps a Spanish woman fix her pocketbook, you can see his charm and his eyes sparkle as if he was still that 14-year-old apprentice in Messina. If you ask Frank about retiring he would reply, “For what?” Frank claims his secret to a long successful marriage is owed to his shoe shop. Both Frank and Carmelo raised families of their own. Frank and his wife Domenica have two sons and four grandchildren. Carmelo and his wife Velia had three daughters and one son. They have five grandchildren. Who knows, if Carmelo and Frank would have had it their way, maybe Nike would have had an accented é?