Top fit after four generations – West Side Rag

Photographs by Susanne Beck.

By Susanne Beck

When the phone picks up at Tip Top Shoes, 155 West 72nd Street (Columbus and Amsterdam), the options on offer sound like those of a big family, not a retail store.

“For Aaron… press 15; For Danny, press 11; For Lester, press 20; For Kerry, press 23; For Margo, press 24; Press 25 for Randolph.”

At Tip Top, which calls itself “New York’s premier shoe store since 1940,” it’s both.

Lester Wasserman, 48, the current owner, is the fourth-generation shoe retailer in the family and still works alongside his father, Danny, 78, who took over the Upper West Side business from his own father, Max. 1980. Max learned the trade from his father, the first in the family to own a shoe shop in Europe.

It was Max who emigrated to America in the 1950s and eventually brought the family business to the Upper West Side by buying – and building – the Tip Top store in 1964, 24 years after the business started.

Today, Danny and Lester are industry legends, true “shoe dogs,” the industry term for honored veterans who “lived the business and made a lasting contribution.” Thanks to Danny’s “nose for the market,” the store has a reputation for spotting footwear trends before they catch on, and forging exceptional – and exceptionally valuable – partnerships with brands that gain national and international recognition. Among them: Birkenstock, Ecco, Mephisto, MBT and Ugg. In March 2021, Footwear Plus magazine dubbed Danny “the footwear industry’s super talent scout.”

As a fourth-generation leader, Lester has worked hard to maintain the family’s outstanding customer service. “We have the best salespeople in the world,” he says. Most of his floor crew have been with Tip Top for more than 10 years, with many “well into their 15s,” he adds.

“They are masters at what they do. Selling shoes sounds easy, but it’s brutal. It’s super labor intensive. There’s a lot up and down. [W]e have 1,000 women’s models, maybe 1,200 on the floor. Making the connection between this customer and this shoe is not easy.”

On one recent weekday, staff were busy tending to more than a dozen customers: listening intently, making suggestions, and taking mental notes while doing the equivalent of the shoe store yoga required of all salespeople: stooping, Lean in, point and grab the walls of product before bouncing to the back of the store and returning, balancing tall stacks of styles, sizes and colors. It’s exhausting just to watch.

Harold Dominici.

30-year sales veteran Harold Dominici is one of the long-time employees. “Have a look at Yelp,” he says with a wink as he briskly moves from one customer to the next. “I’m a salsa dancer too!” he calls over his shoulder, still moving. After owning several shoe stores in the Bronx in his twenties, Harold moved to Tip Top and has never looked back. “I get up early in the morning and run here because I love what I do,” he says from behind his drooping mask. Geena, who has been shopping at Tip Top since 1982, says, “When you have someone who really knows what they’re doing, it makes a difference.”

Juan Diaz.

Juan Diaz is another long-time player – 23 years. After college he had been a bank apprentice. The money was decent, the career path clear, but the work was crippling. It drove me crazy,” Juan recalls. He received a call from a former colleague who worked at a downtown Thom McCann store, urging him to come. He took the plunge – and got infected. A few years later he ended up at Tip Top and never left. “It’s like the saying goes, ‘If you love what you do, you won’t work a day in your life.'”

Lester recalls that the Upper West Side was “rough” when he first hit the floor during high school in the late ’70s. “The neighborhood has changed a lot in the last 30 years and so has the shoe trade thanks to the internet.” He says the store will change a bit too, with an upgrade planned for early 2023.

As for the next generation, Lester’s daughter, who is in high school, is currently getting her own shoes wet on the sales floor with some time. But there is no pressure. “My dad never pushed me into it,” explains Lester. Despite the 24 hours a day that a family business entails, he says he has no regrets. “I like the excitement. Every day is something different.”


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