One of Saxon Shoes' last customers laments the loss. 

Up in Smoke

When I was a little girl my mother took me to a shoe store in Willow Lawn that had real baby ducks swimming in a little blue pond inside the front door.

I loved it all: the peeping of the ducks, the cool metal of the foot-measuring device, the smell of new leather, the clean canvas of a pair of P.F. Flyers and their pristine white laces. Years later, we shopped at the Hofheimer's in Carytown and then at Saxon Shoes at Patterson and Libbie. The landmarks of our lives are often subtle, taken for granted and seemingly impervious to danger.

And so it came to be that I took my own daughter one fateful Saturday afternoon to Saxon's more recent location on Parham Road to pick out a pair of birthday boots.

Just inside the front door we were greeted by an employee, a personal touch you won't find at Pic 'n' Pay, and we dashed to the back of the store, aware that they'd be closing soon. My 11-going-on-25 daughter swished up to the Doc Martens display and examined a pair of $80 boots in the children's department. I noticed that Peggy, the woman who once measured my small foot at Hofheimer's, was kneeling patiently next to a child, pressing down on the toe and telling her she needed growing room, just as she once told me and my children.

I followed my daughter to the ladies' department where she lighted on a pair of platform boots that looked like something out of Jennifer Lopez's closet. I don't think so. After a brief discussion regarding age-appropriateness, individuality and fashion, we agreed on a black Skechers boot (70 percent off!) with less of a heel. A clearly weary salesman went looking for its mate, which apparently was not easily found.

Even at closing, Saxon's was packed with shoppers and had the look of a long, busy day. A manager was handling the traffic, sending salesmen and saleswomen in 10 different directions to customers in need of help with every kind of shoe from fancy Italian heels to sensible walkers. A child holding a balloon — every kid gets one at Saxon — was throwing a no-nap fit. A woman near us was agonizing over at least a dozen pairs of shoes and boots scattered on the floor. Piles of boxes hadn't yet been returned to storage. A teen-ager was prancing around in some stiletto-heeled faux-snakeskin boots, demonstrating to her mother that she really could walk in them without falling.

We watched our salesman dart from the Lucky Lady room (land o' bargains) to the storeroom near the restroom, frantically searching for the missing black boot. With thousands of shoes in stock — from Timberlands to Ferragamos in every imaginable width and length — finding one boot was a challenge. At one point, I stuck my head in a storeroom, looking for him so I could tell him we could come back another day, the boots were not a necessity. I saw a room filled with footwear, floor to high ceiling, boxes and boxes and boxes.

Our relentlessly persistent salesman finally returned with the elusive black boot. The shoe fit, and my daughter decided to wear it. I was delighted with the $23 price tag. As an announcement came over the public address system that the store would be closing momentarily, we paid up and strolled out, admiring on our way a dazzling display of the very latest in strappy spring sandals in lime, orange, pink and white.

Then, just hours after our last visit to Saxon, we watched on the TV news as the smoking ruin of this retail bastion for feet was sprayed down by a fire-department crane.

Something compelled us to drive by and see for ourselves the next day. We had that terribly creepy feeling: We were just there …

I kept thinking of all those shoes — the boxes and boxes and boxes. And the displays, carefully arranged and rearranged all day long. The balloons and the purses. The jewelry and the collectible miniature shoes in the case up front, the raincoats and the socks, the leather and the

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