Moulded Shoe Inc. is barely more than the width of a garage door side to side, but it’s much, much taller than it is wide. Boxes upon boxes of shoes, including Alden‘s deeply unique Modified last models, climb up to the sky on your left and right—maybe 30, 35 feet high at their apex. A metal industrial ladder leans up against them. Silver Brannock devices sit on walls attached to nails, waiting to measure feet of all shapes and sizes.
Ancient shoes from forgotten brands like and Drew Shoes and Miller Shoes, and P.W. Minor, along with custom work Moulded Shoe has produced, sit with their soles flush against the wall, seemingly suspended in thin air. A chair sits tucked away under a set of stairs, next to a desk piled with binders of wonderfully ancient sales manuals, prized artifacts for shoe archeologists. There’s a photo of the store’s owners with Henry Kissinger. A sign proclaiming the sublime truism “One Pair of Feet Must Last a Lifetime” greets everyone who enters.
Ron Hod greets everyone, too. Ron is about six feet tall with a hearty thicket of salt and pepper hair, and dresses casually, comfortably, but always with much more than a touch of knowing class. Ron is one of the owners of Moulded Shoe, along with Ron’s uncle Maurice Mousserie, and Maurice’s son Rafael. Ron is also Moulded’s font of knowledge, and in many ways along with Rafael, its caretaker. Moulded Shoe first opened in the 1940s, thanks to the vision of a man named Nat Goldberg, who we’re going to refer to as Nat Goldberg every time in this story, because Nat Goldberg is a wonderful name. (So is Ron Hod, while we’re at it.)
Nat Goldberg started selling shoes at 16 in New York City. After getting drafted, he served in WWII, in the Pacific. Upon returning home, he opened up Cantilever Shoes, on West 39th Street, to sell dress and casual shoes to men and women alike. Nat Goldberg was tall, always impeccably dressed in a crisp white button-down, and wore his hair parted slightly off-center and slicked back like an old New York gangster—but the nicest old New York gangster you’d ever hope to meet. Business boomed, especially around the time that the U.S. government distributed vouchers for shoes to the families of GIs who were serving overseas. “There was a line from here to Madison Avenue,” Maurice tells me, slightly dismayed that he can’t find a picture from that time, to prove it.
In the early 80s, after selling his own Brooklyn shoe store, Maurice met Nat Goldberg. Maurice took a job hand-crafting orthotics at what was then called Ground Gripper Shoes, for a short period of time—but with the express understanding that he wanted to buy Nat Goldberg’s store. “He was checking me out, and I was checking him out,” says Maurice.
Nat Goldberg checked Maurice out enough to trust him, and happily exchanged ownership, with Maurice paying down part of the cost by working in the shop, making those orthotics and learning the business. But Nat Goldberg couldn’t leave. For 10 years, he worked for Maurice, selling shoes, charming customers, coming almost every day to the shop he built, the placed he loved most. “He worked for a very small salary,” Maurice said. “But he didn’t care. He wanted to be here. And he taught me a lot—about shoes, about feet, so much.”
Then one day Nat Goldberg decided, like so many other New Yorkers before him, that it was time to retire to Florida. And away Nat Goldberg went to the land of early bird dinner specials. But Florida was not the life for Nat Goldberg, nor was being away from his shop. One year later, he called Maurice. Nat was planning on moving back to New York—if and only if Maurice would allow Nat to work for him.
This is your home, Maurice told Nat Goldberg about the shop Maurice by then had renamed Moulded Shoe, to represent one of its core, unique offerings. Of course you’re more than welcome to come back. And he did. “People loved Nat,” Maurice told me. “He knew the customers, he knew what he was doing. And honesty is everything.” But then once again, Nat Goldberg moved back to Florida.
A few months later, without the shop and its shoes in his life—this time for good—Nat Goldberg passed away. “He was healthy like a horse,” Maurice said. “But he was depressed. And he choked, and that was it.”
But Nat Goldberg’s shop lives on.
Today, Moulded Shoe looks the same as it did in 1980, and probably pretty damn close to what it looked like in 1960. Customers try on shoes while sitting in 35 years old chairs. The shelves, Maurice estimates, are 60 years old. Its core offerings remain similarly unchanged. One of Moulded Shoe’s backbones is its namesake, which is why Maurice changed the name.
Moulded shoes are 100% custom, handcrafted orthopedic shoes. Moulded shoe “candidates,” as Ron terms them, are people with severe foot problems—those with “certain medical needs in which a regular shoe will not accommodate your unique shape,” Ron tells me, from people who have suffered massive injuries, to amputees. “A moulded shoe is functional, it’s not for beauty. It’s for someone with a need. It’s definitely not a fashion trend.”
At one point they were called “earth shoes” or “Murray shoes,” a nod to the store on the same block as Moulded that invented them (…Murray Shoes). Decades ago, the area incubated a thriving community of workshops creating moulded shoes from scratch. They all employed the same process: molding each candidate’s feet in a plaster cast, then using that cast to make a shoe last: the wooden or plastic, —or in this case, plaster—form around which any shoe’s leather is stretched to create its unique shape.
“Now, we are one of the few,” says Ron. “There are not even a handful of shoemakers that still have the skill. A moulded shoe is like a piece of art. A regular cobbler simply cannot make these shoes.”
Moulded Shoe employs but one man who can: Rolando Bossio, who absorbed the custom shoemaking trade as a young boy from his father, and learned to make moulded shoes under the guidance of his predecessor, at Moulded. Since then, Rolando has been creating moulded and other custom shoes in a small workshop up the stairs that the Henry Kissinger photo flanks, for over 35 years.
Rolando is a rascal. He feigns wariness when I ask if we can take some photos, but immediately begins posing and hamming it up when the shutter starts clicking. He works here every day, surrounded by shoe boxes, and shoe lasts, and hides of leather, and insoles, and outsoles, and hammers, and pots of glue, and machines that sand and buff and definitely aren’t new.
Rolando’s hands are wiry, strong. They are far less worn and beaten and imperfect than you would expect from someone who has made possibly 5,000 pairs of shoes in his time. He talks about how the shoes he makes are custom, about how he can make you anything at all—anything you can dream.
Customers of all kinds have a single pair of shoes made all the time. But then there are the big orders. Costume designers for everything from Broadway shows to Saturday Night Live often come in, knowing Rolando can create the period-accurate shoes they need.
“We made custom shoes for the entire cast of Nunsense,” Maurice tells me of the zany musical in which a convent has to raise funds to bury four of their accidentally poisoned fellow nuns. “All the girls came in for fittings, one by one. People always come in saying, ‘Oh Maurice, what did they wear in 1933?’ And I figure it out, and Rolando makes the shoes.”
Back downstairs, I ask Ron if Rolando has an apprentice.
“He does not,” says Ron. “It’s a dying skill.”
Luckily for the business, “custom and moulded shoes are not what we sell the most of,” says Ron. “They are very expensive, and it’s a tool in our toolbox, for when we need to accommodate certain people.”
“Alden is what we sell the most of.”
For true shoe lovers, Alden needs little introduction. But let’s do one anyway. Founded in 1884 in Middleborough, Massachusetts, the Alden Shoe Co. is generally considered one of the finest makers of footwear in America—and when one considers companies that manufacture dress shoes and not just boots (which has a still-pulsing scene, especially in the Pacific Northwest), almost certainly the finest of them all.
“The quality is what sets Alden apart,” Ron says. “They’re not going to cut corners. I’ve met the owner. He told me: ‘over time, our prices will get higher. But one thing I can assure you: we’re not going to jeopardize quality.'”
MORE FROM STITCHDOWN
“It’s about the quality of the leather. And the metal shank, they’ll never get away from it. You need that support, regardless of the last. Otherwise the shoe will cave in. There’s nothing like a reverse welted shoe. It’s a tank. It’s not those Italian made beautiful shoes, that last a season or two. Everything from Alden is made to last.”
Outside of two shops the company owns—one in San Francisco, another in DC—Alden sells its shoes and boots through retail partners like Moulded. And especially for stores that specialize in its shoes, Alden puts forth great effort to ensure that each retailer has something unique for its customers, things that no other shop does. This often takes the form of “makeups”—distinct permutations of shoe style, detailing (say, a brogue medallion on a toe cap), outsoles, upper leather, and hardware like eyelets, generally dreamed up by the shop itself—that no other store is allowed to stock.
Moulded Shoe’s particular offering is as unique as unique gets: while it sells countless other Alden shoes, it’s most notable for being the US home of shoes built on the Alden Modified Last. The Modified is special orthopedic last that features an incredibly high arch on the instep, a very narrow heel, and a major, unorthodox swing in the forefoot. The idea is to take the pressure off the ball of the foot, and allow the metatarsal to relax by ensuring the wearer doesn’t place all their bodyweight there.
For people with a high arch, the last can provide a world of comfort and support never before imagined. For people it doesn’t fit well…run. Just not in Modified Last shoes.
“There was a podiatrist on 32nd St, Dr. Jacobsen,” says Ron. “Regardless of the shape of your feet, he felt that the Modified Last would be the most beneficial shape for anyone.”
“But over the years, it was found that if you are really flat-footed, the Modified Last will work against you. Some flat footed people with a flexible foot will find it very helpful. But others will not be able to tolerate it all.”
The Modified Last’s focus on serious orthopedic benefits results in a shoe that’s at least slightly different looking than what you might be accustomed to—especially the flaring forefoot. Calling them clown shoes is an easy jab to make. But Moulded works with Alden to create makeups that are every bit as beautiful—if definitely more unique aesthetically—as anything else they produce.
While many Alden retailers have one of two models of Modified Last shoes, Moulded stocks dozens, and can potentially create basically anything you have in mind, within reason. Which is good, because “once you get used to the Modified Last, it’s tough to go back to anything else,” Ron says. “Including a different last from Alden.”
Maurice, Rafael, Ron, and Moulded’s other salesman Sam have been selling Modified Last shoes since the day the store opened in the ‘40s. And they will continue to sell them until the day it closes. I imagine I’m not the only person who hopes that day—for one of the most unique and wonderful stores of any kind, anywhere—is far, far away.