Q&A with Henry VanderSpek

This month's Community Spotlight features a Q+A with Henry VanderSpek, documentary photographer and curator of Old World Shoes, a fascinating exhibition exploring independent shoe and shoe repair shops in Toronto. On display at the Daniels Spectrum in Regent Park December 2, 2021 to January 3, 2022.

Can you tell us about your exhibition, Old World Shoes?

Old World Shoes is an exhibit celebrating older shoe and shoe repair stores of Toronto. It features portraits of store owners alongside interview excerpts where they share their insights and experiences gained from decades of serving their clientele and local community. I began working on this project in December 2017 and am excited that now, four years later, I am finally able to show my work.

How did you come up with the idea? Do you have any personal connection to the shoe industry or shoe stores specifically?

After my last documentary exhibit, Taxi Drivers of Toronto (2017 Contact Photo Festival), I found myself considering the rapid pace of change in Toronto and how small local businesses that have served a community for decades often disappear when redevelopment occurs, with little fanfare or recognition of all that they brought to our city.

I have no personal connection to the shoe industry, or any shoe stores. I have long admired the unique character and atmosphere in small local shoe and shoe repair shops though. There is so much for the eyes to take in, the product offerings are refreshingly different and the personal service is a nice change from most corporate chain stores.

Pictured is Antonietta Di Santo from Capri Shoes, a shoe repair and footwear company specializing in handcrafting shoes, boots and custom character footwear products for the entertainment industry.

Was it challenging to find people to interview for your exhibition? How did you go about your research?

I have a nice stack of business cards as a testament to how many store owners I approached for this project! I've learned while doing documentary work that I need to have a clear pitch as to what I am doing and why, when approaching possible participants, so that people can understand my vision and intent. Some store owners were immediately interested and others I had to return to a few times, out of respect for their busy work schedule, before they came on board. I found a few of the stores in my exhibit by using a search engine, but I found most of them by exploring Toronto's many great neighbourhoods and through tips that other store owners gave me when I interviewed them.

Pictured is Ellen Vivacqua, owner of La Parigina Shoes, a family run business that has been serving the Corso Italia neighbourhood since 1970.

What was one of the most surprising things you learned throughout this process?

I was surprised by how much there is to discover about the shoe industry in Toronto. The more people I interviewed, the more I learned about the rich heritage of shoemaking and manufacturing here. Most of my interviews with store owners were complete when the pandemic struck, so I had time to continue exploring more broadly, mostly via video conferencing methods. Historian and author Karolyn Smardz Frost helped me to discover Francis Griffin Simpson, a black shoemaker and engaged citizen in Toronto politics. A conversation with Elizabeth Semmelhack, Director and Senior Curator of the Bata Shoe Museum, gave me a much wider view of the Toronto context that I had been actively exploring. Alexandra Avdichuk, Supervisor of the City of Toronto's Collections and Conservation, allowed me to see first hand some of the wonderful shoe-related artefacts that the city has preserved from past generations. I have not been able to incorporate all of what I've learned into this current exhibit, but I hope in time, I can bring more of it to the forefront.

Pictured is Peter Feeney, owner of Peter Feeney Bespoke Shoes, a Toronto custom handmade shoe company located in The Junction.

Why did you decide to curate this exhibition? What would you like your visitors to take away from it?

My conviction that we need to celebrate and support small local businesses, like the shoe and shoe repair stores I feature in my current exhibit, has only grown during the pandemic period we've all been living through. I believe people are even more aware now of the challenges that they face. I hope though, that people will walk away from my exhibit with an even deeper sense of the value that small business people bring to a community. I also hope people realize that investing in well-made shoes is worth it as they can have a much longer life, which benefits your wallet and the environment.

Pictured is Lorena Agolli, owner of Sole Survivor, a shoe and boot repair shop in Parkdale.

When and where can visitors see Old World Shoes?

Old World Shoes is on exhibit from December 2, 2021 to January 3, 2022 at Daniels Spectrum in Regent Park, 585 Dundas Street East, here in Toronto. Click here for more details about the exhibit.

Pictured is George Aslanidis, owner of Yiorgos the Cobbler, a shop repair shop located in by Dundas St W. / Roncesvalles.

Do you have any other projects in the works that you’d like to share?

I always have a number of projects on the go. Nothing is confirmed for the coming year just yet, but I do have plans and aspirations! Please stay tuned via my website or social media accounts for updates on my next new ventures. Here's my social media: Instagram, Twitter, Facebook

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