James J. Wood says never again in a lifetime will a shoe be so synonymous with the Gate City that the manufacturer would name it ``The Greensboro.' That's what Nettleton once did with its tassel loafer that became a Greensboro rage in the '60s.
``It wasn't limited to an age group. We had it in sizes 5 to 14. That's what made it such a phenomenon,' Wood says. ``We had 1,300 in stock at one time. We had shelves built on the stairwell in the basement for them. We had that shoe everywhere.'Nettleton introduced the shoe in the late '50s. When the fever hit Greensboro, teenagers stood in line to get the loafer, recalls Wood. He was menswear manager of Younts-DeBoe Clothing Co. of 106 N. Elm St., then the only place in Greensboro where you could buy the shoe.
``On Saturdays - a big shopping day back then - we'd have people waiting at the door when we opened to buy the Greensboro Nettleton. You couldn't believe your eyes.'
For about 20 years, the dressy, side-laced loafer made the now defunct Younts-DeBoe the No. 1 account for that Nettleton shoe, recalls Wood, later president and part-owner of the store's successor, Younts-DeBoe II, which was liquidated in 1989.
He says on a regional scale, that kind of popularity was equal to the nationwide craze over the alligator shirt by LaCoste. ``Nettleton couldn't believe what was happening in Greensboro.' The shoemaker sent people here to look into the phenomenon, Wood says. The shoe wasn't selling well elsewhere.
``The Greensboro was not a fad,' Wood says. ``It was a classic. It was produced and sent all over America, but it only caught on in Greensboro.'
Wood says ``Loafer' was a Nettleton registered trademark. ``No one else could use it without buying the rights to it.'
People bent on owning The Greensboro never let the price stand in the way, Wood recalls. Take the late restaurateur William McClure, for example. Wood says McClure always wore a bright-red sports coat when greeting his customers.
``One day he told Norman (Norman Hayworth, Younts-DeBoe shoe manager) he'd like a pair of red Nettletons. Norman told him the company wouldn't make just one. The order had to be for at least three pair. 'Order them for me,' he said.'
When the red shoes with black soles and laces arrived, the price tag per pair was $60. ``That was like $400 a pair today. Norman said, 'He'll shoot me.' But when McClure came to pick them up, he didn't bat an eye at the price.'
Through the years, the loafer knew peaks and valleys, says menswear retailer Bernard Shepherd, who later had the Greensboro Nettleton account until the U.S. Shoe Corp. bought Nettleton. ``They wanted only what they could market nationally.'
Shepherd said he would have had to be the East Coast distributor to have afforded the minimum order, 5,000 pairs the first year and 500 the next. ``They closed down Nettleton.'
Shepherd says he sent a pair of Greensboro Nettletons to Johnston-Murphy Shoe Co. to copy as nearly as possible without infringing on patent rights. ``I do real well with them. From a few feet away you can't tell the difference.'
Wood says the unique thing about The Greensboro was its leather. ``The shoe was so easy to break in. It was like an old shoe. That's why it was so popular.'
Norman Hayworth gets the credit for the loafer's giant step to Piedmont success in the '60s.
He got the best-dressed high school boys to start wearing the tassel loafer by offering them the shoe at cost. The American-made loafer retailed for a whopping $24.95, about four times what the average school shoe was selling for back then.
He offered his first deal to Jim Fesmire of Page High School, who worked for him part-time.
Fesmire got members of Syitt, his ``rebellious social club,' to take on a tan Nettleton as the club shoe to go with the olive-green club blazer. The loafer was available in about 10 solid colors and combinations, including red, white and blue.
Fesmire, today a Greensboro businessman, says the fever spread to other schools around here, even Burlington. ``That unusual tan took off first.'
During the loafer's peak, Fesmire says, the Nettleton sales manager had the loafer made up in black and tan alligator for him. ``They cost me $98.75. That took a lot of pool playing.' Recently, he saw a pair of Cole-Haan alligator slip-ons in a catalog for $700.