November-December 2008

Sole Survivor

Fortuna's has been fixing shoes in Bethesda for 70 years.

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When Terry Fortuna goes out in public, she often casts her eyes toward the ground. But not because she’s shy. It’s just that this funny, friendly white-haired woman of 63 has a thing about shoes. “In fact, I really have to be very careful, because I find myself staring at somebody’s feet,” she says. “If they have on a pair of good shoes that they’ve really abused, it sort of hurts my feelings.”

For the last 24 years, Terry has run Fortuna’s, a family business that has been fixing shoes (plus purses, luggage, horse harnesses and anything else made of leather) in downtown Bethesda since 1938. And while many local retailers are suffering through the current economic downturn, customers are pouring into Fortuna’s, including young people who occupy the new apartment buildings in the neighborhood and are suddenly pinched for cash. “I had a young man come in two weeks ago, wearing Johnston & Murphy shoes, and he wanted a shine,” recounts Terry. “I said, ‘you need soles and you need heels,’ and he said, ‘Oh no, I’m going to buy new shoes, just shine them.’ I said, ‘why would you buy new shoes for $350 when you can repair these for $70?’” The fellow was unconvinced. But a few days later he went shoe shopping and was shocked at the prices: “He called me from the store and said, ‘How much is the repair?’ I told him and he said, ‘I’ll be back this afternoon.’”

Fortuna’s prides itself on its Old World craftsmanship and devotion to detail. The store traces its origins to Italy, the birthplace of Amadeo Fortuna, who immigrated to Philadelphia and worked there as a shoemaker. Amadeo’s son Giuseppe, Terry’s father-in-law, traveled the East Coast selling leather products, and one of his customers was in Washington, D.C., near Meridian Hill Park. He liked the area (and the customer’s daughter), and after they got married, Giuseppe (later known as Joseph) opened a small shoe repair business on Wisconsin Avenue, between Bethesda Avenue and Elm Street. Narrow booths lined the walls, says Terry, so “you could take your shoes off and sit in the booths and nobody would see your feet” while you waited. In 1943, Giuseppe renamed his store Fortuna’s and started selling fine leather goods. Repairs were supposed to be a sideline, but as Terry notes, “People knew he could fix things, so he got into fixing the luggage he sold, the shoes he sold. His staff kept growing and that’s how it started.”

Giuseppe was a “stickler for perfection,” Terry says. “If he didn’t think a job would turn out well, he didn’t do it.” Her father-in-law was also a “handsome devil,” with a thin mustache and a wide grin (she still displays an advertising poster for O’Sullivan heels featuring Giuseppe’s picture), and as his business flourished, he moved his family to a new neighborhood, out Bradley Boulevard near the Bethesda Country Club. A Catholic parish, Our Lady of Mercy, was just forming, and the priest recruited the teenagers in the area to start a chapter of the Catholic Youth Organization, or CYO. Two of the first members were Fortuna’s son, Joseph, and the woman he later married, Terry Runkle.

Terry’s father was also a Bethesda businessman, an engineer working out of a former auto repair shop. “I recently had dinner at David Craig on St. Elmo and I said, ‘Oh my God, it’s like déjà vu,’ because that’s where my father’s business was. David’s dining room is where his drawing tables were set up.” Terry was 13 when she met Joseph, and she says, “People don’t realize what a small town Bethesda is. We used to say we went to different schools together.” For Terry, that meant Our Lady of Lourdes and Immaculata in the District; for Joe, it was Western Junior High and Good Counsel in Wheaton. All through high school, Joe worked for his father, waiting on customers and buying supplies, but he was barred from fixing shoes. “My husband is a doctor,” says Terry, “and it was a typical ‘my son the doctor’ thing. He wasn’t allowed to do repairs because he might mess up his hands.”