WAUKESHA - Part of Marilyn Cohn Kagan’s push to commemorate her
family’s former shoe shop was for personal reasons, she
Last week, Kagan looked on as the Waukesha County Historical
Society and Museum dedicated a marker to commemorate the Cohn Bros.
Shoe Store, which from 1921 to 1998 stood downtown at 342 W. Main
Kagan’s pride in the business is not without reason. Her
father, Sam, and uncle Phil, Jewish immigrants from Belarus,
overcame oppression in their homeland and - with little formal
training - built a business that lasted more than seven decades. Her
brother Ed ran the store from 1977 until he closed its doors in
"It was important to pay tribute to him as part of my
history," she said of her father.
The marker, which lies one block north of the building - now home
to Almont Gallery - also serves as a reminder of how far the
Waukesha business community has changed over the years.
Prior to the 1960s, the store, which served men and women of all
ages, was one of several large retailers located downtown. Before
the interstate and suburban sprawl, Kagan said there was simply no
place else to shop.
"Everything was downtown," she said.
Kagan, 77, said stores like her father’s would often be packed,
especially on Friday nights and Saturdays.
In more recent decades, the development of shopping malls
diffused from local retail establishments and left a downtown
composed largely of smaller, specialty shops.
One aspect of Waukesha life that Kagan, now a California
resident, remembers vividly from her childhood is the strong sense
of community, a tradition today’s business owners try to carry
"Everybody knew everybody else," she said. "They
learned how to depend on themselves and their neighbors."
When World War II came to end, Kagan said it was natural for
residents to celebrate the event together, using the shoe shop as a
"It was a very tight-knit community," she said.
Leaving a legacy
When asked about the store’s longevity, Kagan, who spent much
of her own childhood hanging out at the shop, credits her family
members’ work ethic and resiliency.
The latter became especially valuable during the Great
Depression, when most people simply didn’t have the money to pay
for shoes. Sam and Phil managed to survive by bartering, she
In a particularly memorable transaction, her family received a
live turkey in exchange for an order of shoes. Unfortunately, she
remembers getting too attached to the bird in the days leading up to
"By that time me and my brother had made a pet of the
thing," she said.
Her father, lacking a formal business education, also relied on
his instincts in running the store. Every detail of the operation,
including how to display shoes, had to be learned through trial and
With the historical marker as a reminder, Kagan hopes her family’s
experiences will inspire current and future Waukesha residents.
"(History) is not just a bunch of dry facts," she said.
"We’re talking about real people."
Daniel Kurt can be reached at email@example.com