The end of an era: Ortega’s Shoes closing after 46 years in Safford

Jon Johnson Photo/Gila Herald: After 46 years in business in Safford, Ortega’s Shoes headed by Richard Ortega will sell its last bit of merchandise this weekend before closing for good.

This weekend last chance to get clearance stock

By Jon Johnson

SAFFORD – In the hustle and bustle of today’s online retail environment, it seems everything is available with just a click. Everything except down-home service, expertise, and product knowledge that one received when shopping at Ortega’s Shoes.

This weekend will be the last chance for customers to select clear-out stock and give good wishes to Richard and Theresa Ortega, who have run Ortega’s Shoes in the Mt. Graham Shopping Center at 1944 W. Thatcher Blvd. for the past 46 years.

Jon Johnson Photo/Gila Herald: A sign on the window of Ortega’s Shoes announces its closure.

The family business of Ortega Shoes Inc., which Richard ran with his uncles and cousin, was first started 95 years ago.

The family business’ patriarch, Juan Ortega, immigrated to the United States from Zacatecas, Mexico, in 1914. He settled in El Paso, Texas, and found work as a saddle maker working for Tony Lama Boots. There, he learned the art of shoemaking and shoe repair that would be the backbone of his family’s business. This year marks the franchise’s 88th year in business.

Jon Johnson Photo/Gila Herald: Richard Ortega examines a woman’s shoe as he reminisces of days gone past.

Juan moved to Douglas in 1922 and began working at a shoe repair shop. The following year, he and his wife, Conception, opened the first Ortega’s Shoes in 1923.

Juan passed the shoemaking and repair craft onto his progeny, including his son, John, who opened his own store in Bisbee in 1943. John then passed the craft on to his son, Richard, who opened his own Ortega’s Shoes in Safford in 1972.

Richard said he always knew he was going to be in the shoe business and learned the craft by helping out in his father’s store when he was growing up. After being honorably discharged from the Marines, Richard worked in the clothing division for a J.C. Penney’s store in Van Nuys, Calif., for a short time but returned to Bisbee in 1968 to help out in the shoe store when his father became ill.

After a few years, Richard was ready to open up his own Ortega’s Shoes location and scoured the state for a suitable spot. In 1972, he visited the Mt. Graham Shopping Center location in Safford when it was only a foundation and decided that was where he was going to put down roots.

“When we opened up this location, the parking lot wasn’t even paved yet,” Richard said.

Throughout the years, stores have come and gone in the shopping center, but Ortega’s Shoes stayed through it all as its cornerstone.

When he first opened, Richard found himself in a situation where he had to borrow money from the bank. He said the banker looked at his financial statement and laughed and said the business wasn’t worth the amount he was requesting. But the banker had seen Richard open the store and decided to take a chance, which after 46 years in the same location appeared to have paid off.

“After these 46 years, the Gila Valley has been very good to us,” Richard said. “We’ve had good, loyal customers and my wife and I have been blessed with great employees.”

Since the announcement of the store’s closing, current and former customers have been popping in to share their respect for the Ortegas. While the Gila Herald was on site, a young man came in and gave his best to Richard and said he remembered getting his first pair of shoes from him.

In the earlier days, Richard did shoe repair and corrective work for customers with foot issues. One time he actually had to call a doctor who wrote a prescription for a corrective shoe and informed the doctor that he had made a mistake and the real way to fix the issue was to do the opposite of what was recommended. Richard said the doctor looked at the issue and changed the prescription to his recommendation.

Jon Johnson Photo/Gila Herald: Richard Ortega ponders what the future has in store for him.

This Friday and Saturday will be the last days the store will be open as Richard busies himself returning the store back into the original incantation to turn the keys over to the building’s owner before the end of the month.

Richard also serves as Vice-Mayor on the Safford City Council and is involved with the Knights of Columbus, and the St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church. Still, he said he and Theresa may travel a bit after the store is closed but he plans to get a part-time job to stay busy and has taken up bicycle riding to keep his 73-year-young body in shape.

Richard attributed his success to his Marine training of never quitting and always moving forward, even if one’s path diverts from the original plan.

“Positive thinking, that’s the name of the game,” Richard said. “The Marines have a  saying, we don’t retreat we just fight walking backward.”

He also credits running the store with teaching his children a good work ethic, as they all worked at the store at one time or another. Richard and his family are very patriotic as well. Richard served in the Marines during the Vietnam War; his son, also named Richard, retired from the Air Force after 24 years; his daughter, Jacqueline, served in the Navy; two other grandsons have served in the Army and his grandson, Joe, currently serves in the Navy.

Now at the end of his career, Richard said he will miss the customers but, mostly, he will miss the employees.

“Our employees have been with us – one was with us 13 years (another) eight years (and another) seven years,” Richard said. “We have become family. That’s what I’m going to miss.”