During the first half of the 20th century Montserratians were limited in footwear options. The variety stores in Plymouth offered very little variety in shoes, which were secondary items. For the less fortunate, there were cobblers who made shoes from scratch. But whether retail or rustic, the designs were basic and the styles were static.
That changed when Bata Shoe Store opened its doors in Plymouth in 1947. For almost four decades the store at the intersection of Parliament and Houston streets was a favorite destination. The trendy shoes, friendly staff, affordable prices and welcoming aroma of leather, rubber and suede solidified Bata’s place in Montserrat society.
Bata, a family business, began in 1894 in Czechoslovakia. In 1939 the company relocated to Canada upon learning that Hitler and the Nazis planned to invade Czechoslovakia. For decades to come, Bata’s main headquarters would be in Ontario.
Bata reached the West Indies in the early 1930s, with branches opening in Jamaica and Trinidad. Bata then made its way to the smaller islands, including Montserrat. The company needed a local agent, and M.S. Osborne was the island’s leading businessman. He added Bata to his expanding business portfolio. Montserrat was now “in tings” – boasting an international franchise in the heart of its capital.
BIG SHOES TO FILL
Two notable figures during the early days of Bata in Montserrat were manager Moses “Brother” Tuitt, who hailed from Farms but lived in George Street, and “Bata” Ben White of Fort Barrington. In 1954, Cedric Osborne – son of M.S. Osborne – became manager at 18 years old when Tuitt migrated. He remembers some of the duties of being an agent for the global giant.
“We used to get the shoes from England but Bata’s regional office was in Jamaica,” Osborne says. “We had to send reports by cable to them regularly regarding which products were selling well and which ones were not.”
Added Osborne, chuckling: “They would also send cables to us requesting information. If we didn’t answer in a timely manner they made us pay for the cable.”
When M.S. Osborne died in 1967, Cedric Osborne left Bata and became manager at the Vue Pointe Hotel, which was built by his father in 1961. Before he left he hired a young man who would become synonymous with Bata in the 1970s and ’80s: Carlisle Duberry.
“When I hired Carlisle he was a cleaner and he would also stack the shoe boxes,” Osborne says. “When I left to go to Vue Pointe they brought in someone from St. Kitts to run the place and then Carlisle later became manager.”
Bata earned fame for its popular “soft-walker” shoes, Jelly’s – which were dubbed “Sh*t Mashers” – and flip-flops (rubber slippers). Sales were especially brisk in late August as children prepared for the new school year.
Gracelyn Williams-Carty worked at Bata from 1978 to 1983. She recalls the flurry of activity as parents flocked for shoes.
“The black loafers and Speed-Rite sneakers were popular,” she says. “Bata was the place to be in those days. I didn’t think of the people as customers. It was like family.”
Owning shoes from Bata was prestigious for the underprivileged, and some took steps to make sure they lasted. Some boys would wear their “soft-walkers” to school, then take them off after school and walk home barefooted.
Tony Maloney’s family lived on the second floor of the building in which Bata was located. He recalls the impact of Bata and how it changed the paradigm in Montserrat.
“People were happy that they could go to one place and get their shoes,” says Maloney, who worked for many years in the Department of Agriculture. “To sit in a chair and have someone attend to you, it meant something. It was something that was cherished.”
As its popularity grew, the Bata brand gained local prestige. Bata sponsored a local cricket team – the Bata Falcons – in the early 1970s. Bata ads were prominent on Radio Montserrat as listeners eagerly awaited the latest sale. Another popular feature at Bata: each year during the Christmas Festival, photos of the Queen Show contestants were displayed in the main window. Bata often sponsored a pair of shoes to the winner.
As for the daily operations, Williams-Carty says the store had to follow guidelines mandated by Bata, mainly a focus on customer service. The staff would cater to patrons, seating them, assisting them in trying on shoes and even patiently lacing up their sneakers.
“There was a Bata handbook,” Williams-Carty says. “We were told to measure the customers’ feet but we got to know some of them so well that we already knew their size. We also sold other items like socks, panty hose, pocket books, shoe polish and shoe dye.”
NOVELTY WEARS OFF
The Bata phenomenon hit a snag in the 1980s. As with any company, the bottom line – profit margin – takes top priority. A combination of factors led to Bata closing its stores in the Caribbean, including the Montserrat branch in 1985. Competition and production costs hampered the company. Also, the rise of Nike, Reebok, adidas and Puma usurped Bata’s slow-evolving catalog. In Montserrat, stores such as Arrow’s Man Shop and Johnnie’s Mecca Fashions sold shoes, further weakening Bata’s once-stranglehold on the local shoe market.
When Bata left, Duberry renamed the store Carlisle’s Shoe Center and took over ownership. “Bata used to still send shoes to me,” he says. “And I started selling other items like women’s clothes.”
Carlisle’s Shoe Center remained open in Plymouth until the volcanic crisis in 1995. The store relocated to Cork Hill – Duberry’s home village – and later to Sweeney’s, across from Tropical Mansion Suites. It closed for good after Duberry migrated to England in 2005.
Although Bata does not wield the international clout it once commanded, it remains popular in markets such as India and Pacific Rim countries that provide cheap labor. Bata’s time in Montserrat is now merely a memory, but for many they are fond memories.
Says Duberry, the longtime manager: “The salary was good and I got to do a lot of traveling to places like Trinidad and Barbados.”
Williams-Carty enjoyed the entire experience: “Sometimes people used to stop by the store and hang out even if they weren’t buying shoes. They would stop by to just chat and relax in the [comfortable] chairs. I liked my co-workers, I liked the customers, we got paid commission and Carlisle was a good manager. I have pleasant memories that I will always cherish.”