Four generations of one family have been involved in Spark’s Shoes since 1931 when Edward (Ned) Spark purchased an existing boot repair business situated in what was then Railway Parade in Beecroft.
In 2013 it is Beecroft’s longest surviving retail business. The original site was a timber building facing the railway to the north of the Hannah Street corner. A drycleaning business currently operates on the site.
Ned Spark had learned his trade from his father in Newcastle, where he grew up. In Beecroft the business survived during the hard years of the 1930s depression when a serviceable pair of shoes was essential and money was In short supply for most families. Shoes would be repaired many times before buying a new pair was considered. Harold Spark, Ned’s second son, learned the trade from his father, and when Ned died suddenly in 1934, Harold, at the age of 17, carried on the business, supporting his mother and two younger siblings. In 1938 he moved the business to a new site at 33 Beecroft Parade, now 9 Wongala Crescent, and took on an apprentice, Keith Smith, a member of a local Beecroft family. Spark’s Shoes still operates on the same site.
World War 11 and the aftermath
Australia’s involvement in WW11 presented a problem for a small businessman eligible for military service. Keith Smith was already enlisted when Harold was called up for army service in 1942. His younger brother Keith, on leaving school, was obliged to work in an essential industry and was sent to work on his cousin’s dairy farm near Singleton. Keith loved the country life. Meanwhile the shoe repair business was closed for the duration of the war.
After his discharge from the army in 1946, Harold re-opened the shop. With a flood of returned soldiers seeking work, Keith Spark appreciated the opportunity to begin working with his brother as an employee and learned the trade. The shop was expanded in 1948 and while shoe repairing was the major part of the business, Harold Spark began retailing shoes as well. An apprentice, Hilton Gambling, was employed in addition to Keith Smith. Harold also produced custom-made shoes for a small number of clients, some of whom had all their shoes made to an individual last, and did some orthopaedic work for children.
Keith and Pat Spark take over
Doubtful of his future in the business, which was solely Harold’s, Keith Spark with his wife, Pat (they married in 1951), took the opportunity in 1956, to leave and return for some years to his first love, life on a small dairy farm at Moorland, near Taree. They worked hard to make this run-down farm profitable and soon after they sold it in 1962, Harold was ready to sell the business in Beecroft. Keith and Pat decided to buy it. Beecroft’s population was growing rapidly and new subdivisions meant the arrival of many families including children to Beecroft and Cheltenham.
While shoe repairs continued, the retail side was gradually expanding. While Keith had the skills to continue the repair side of the enterprise, Pat “did everything else”. She had worked in sales before her marriage and for some years had an important role in her parents’ business, a shop in Eastwood selling home-baked cakes. She had sometimes, without pay, “helped out” in the Beecroft store. Now she gradually learned the skills of small business management on the job. With four and then five young children, she employed a fulltime housekeeper. Due to their joint efforts, and strong work ethic, Keith and Pat’s business flourished. Their second daughter, Marion Zimmerman, says that she and her four sisters were expected to play their part. She recalls working in the shop as a small child, of about eight years, accepting and labelling shoes for repair, sweeping up as needed and generally “being useful”.
Keith and Pat were entrepreneurial. They had agents across neighbouring suburbs where agents (newsagents or drycleaning outlets) served as collection points for shoes needing repair. They also secured the shoe repairing for Loreto College at Normanhurst. The repair side of the business continued while the retail grew.. Marion credits this successful expansion of the retail side of the business to Pat’s skills as a saleswoman.
In 1969 they demolished the building and rebuilt it. They expanded to the rear of the site, placing the retailing part of the enterprise in the front, with the shoe repairs located at the back, the entry being from the car park. It was a difficult time during the rebuilding as the two parts of the business had to be moved temporarily to other sites in Beecroft. In the new premises, a section upstairs was leased to Kenwick Galleries which helped pay the mortgage.
A changing business
As Beecroft customers became more prosperous, they bought more shoes rather than relying on having their shoes resoled. In its latest change, the upper level was redesigned to include a long bench along what had been a corridor. Spark’s focussed in this part of the store on fitting children’s footwear and individual fitting records for children were started. They were the first Clark’s Specialty Store in Australia. Much later, in the 1990s when sports shoes became an expanding part of the retailing operation, an upper section was set aside on a third level for these also. The shoe repair part of the business was sold off. The family business changed as Beecroft residents and Australian consumers’ requirements changed.
From 1964 Keith Spark decided on expansion, opening branch stores in small shopping centres at Thompson’s Corner in West Pennant Hills (1964 – 1976), Westleigh (1975 – 1980), Winston Hills (1981 – 1992) and Gordon (1986 – 1990). The only survivor from this period is the store at North Rocks, opened in the newly built shopping centre in 1975. It was a period of shifting trends in retailing. As large suburban shopping malls opened, managers preferred chain store shoe retailers. Gradually four of the branch stores were closed.
Production of shoes in Australia, which hardly existed before 1939, expanded as manufacturers became more mechanised. The largest makers of footwear in Australia, including Julius Marlowe and Clark’s, generally preferred to supply only large retailers who would order large quantities of stock. Small retailers like Spark’s Shoes carried a different range. Pat Spark and Marion Zimmerman recall brands of shoes they stocked, mostly now forgotten names. They included Bedggood, Cadets, Footrest, Alloura, Imps, Betta and Waratah, the only men’s line that they stocked. Dunlop was then the principal brand of sports shoes and among the lines of shoes for children were Pastimes and Sunbeams. Australian-made shoes are now a thing of the past.
A new generation takes over
Pat Spark’s health deteriorated in the 1970s. At the time, her daughter Marion and her husband Russell Zimmerman were living and working on the south coast of New South Wales. Russell was establishing a successful career as the area sales representative for Hoffnungs, a warehouse in Sydney, and Marion was employed in banking. Because of Pat’s inability to continue carrying her heavy responsibilities, Marion and Russell Zimmerman decided to purchase shares in Spark’s Shoes in 1977. They both loved selling and saw the opportunity to operate an established retail business, without having to “start from scratch”. They purchased the remaining shares in 1984.
This enabled Keith, with Pat, to return to his preferred occupation as a small farmer. They sold their home in Pennant Hills and purchased a small farm near Gloucester and later re-located to another farm at Cargo near Orange. After they sold that they bought a property in Narara on the Central Coast, where they developed a show garden. They lived in a retirement village but finally moved back to North Rocks, close to the Zimmermans.
When the opportunity presented in 2001, Marion and Russell opened a stand-alone Rockport Concept Retail Store in Castle Towers shopping centre. The walking shoes produced by Rockport were in strong demand at the time The Zimmermans were responding to a changing market where customers were becoming focussed on fitness, leisure and healthy lifestyle and new lines in clothing and footwear were produced to meet this demand. It was at this time that the fourth generation of the family became involved, and their daughter Jaycene and her husband Bradmanaged the Castle Towers store. It closed in 2008.
Russell and Marion Zimmerman still operate the two stores at Beecroft and North Rocks but Russell now holds the position of Executive Director of the Australian Retailers Association, so now Marion is running the business day to day. She is mentoring her daughter Jaycene, who with her husband, Brad, continues to work in the business, the fourth generation of the Spark family to be involved in this enterprise.
Why has Spark’s Shoes survived for more than 80 years in Beecroft?
It is rare for a family business to survive into the third generation and also now to include a fourth generation. Spark’s Shoes has prospered despite a constantly changing retail environment because of the ability of Spark family members to “read” changing consumer demand and respond. Marion Zimmerman believes an important factor has been that “our business has never been inherited. It has always been bought from the previous family owner” and so “responsibility has been transferred”. It is clear also that harmonious relationships within the family since 1962 have been important.
Pat and Marion emphasise other qualities that have contributed to their success. Readiness to work long hours, including weekends, and to sacrifice leisure hours and holidays, has been essential. Marion says the family members who worked in the business enjoyed selling. She strongly emphasises “knowing and understanding your customers”. When she became the buyer, she resisted the advice of suppliers, all male, who told her how well a certain line was doing for other retailers. Understanding her Beecroft customers, she insisted on stocking only good quality shoes because this was what her clients wanted, at a time when the retail chains are selling lower priced footwear.
As Spark’s website says “We want to get to know you as a person – to make friends with our customers.” The Spark’s credo also is “We don’t just sell shoes, we fit feet”. They are serving a niche market. Marion believes the point of difference in Beecroft was always to give quality and service.
This article is based on an interview with Pat Spark and Marion Zimmerman by Lesley Goldberg and Heather Thomas in June 2013.