Omar’s Shoes has been operated by the Khamissa family for over 51 years.
For more than half a century, the popular boutique founded by community-builder Omar Khamissa has been based out of the Aurora Shopping Centre at Yonge and Murray, spurring a second store in East Gwillimbury under the leadership of son Raz and daughter-in-law Mae.
Now, the family is fighting to keep their business in Aurora.
This week, the Khamissa family announced they will be closing their flagship location after being unable to resolve issues related to rent relief programs ahead of a new lease.
“The financial strain that the COVID pandemic has put us through has been tremendous,” said Raz and Mae in a letter sent out to longtime loyal customers. “Through all of this time, we just kept thinking that we will give it our best to get past this. We have not given up on finding a compromise or maybe another location in Aurora, but only time will tell. We take consolation in knowing that we will continue our business in our location in Newmarket [and] our daughter Saarah will continue our story there.
“We would like to thank all of our longtime loyal customers and friends that have supported us over all these years. We have seen three generations of families that have trusted us to look after them. We always felt that if you live in your community they will support you and, in turn, we supported local charities, fundraisers, and sports teams. Aurora has been a wonderful town to be a part of and we have been proud Aurorans since 1968.”
Omar Khamissa emigrated to Canada from South Africa and, before too long, planted roots in his adopted hometown bringing high quality shoes to customers in Aurora and beyond.
It was a time when business was sealed with a handshake and word was taken as bond.
Although Omar has since passed on, this is a legacy that has been continued by two generations that have followed him.
“We feel after all this time we might be considered a landmark and it is just unfortunate – upsetting, unfortunate, disappointing all at one,” said Raz. “If we find something else, we would love to open back up. If there’s anybody looking, we would love to have them touch base with us.”
Raz estimates that over the past 15-or-so months of the global pandemic, they have been closed for over six months. It has been devastating for the business financially, having to continue to pay $25,000 per month for their space.
“What has gotten us through this time is curbside. Our customers have been coming to us whether or not they needed the shoes. They have been coming to try and support us to help us get through it. They have been doing it with local restaurants, they have been doing it with local stores, they have been trying to help us independents get through this. When we have been doing curbside fittings, the sentiment has been the same: ‘I hope you can get through this. We love coming to your store. You treat customers so well.’ It gives us great pride to hear that and it kills us to think what is going to happen.”
For Mae, the hardest part will be leaving these “phenomenal customers” behind.
“They are just incredible people that we have become friends with – that’s what makes us come in every day,” she said. “We have phenomenal staff and the staff have built incredible relationships with customers.
“I think of what my father-in-law started here and what this place meant to him,” she said. “He came with nothing in his pocket and started this. In the '80s and '90s people told him, ‘Omar, you have to open up at the mall,’ and he said, ‘I will never leave this plaza. Aurora is my home, you can offer me what you want, but I am never going to leave this place.’ I just remember his words and I remember him telling me, ‘This is my home, these are my people and this is where I am staying. They supported me from day one and I am not leaving.’
“That hurts a hell of a lot because it was his legacy. This is part of not just our family, but all the families over the years that came to us, supported us, and kept on telling us how they preferred coming here because we took the time to give them customer service. Another element that hurts is we have two adults from The Able Network (an Aurora-based organization giving work opportunities for adults with intellectual disabilities) – Adam and Gemma, and Adam has been with us close to 15 years now – and this is where they come to work. This was part of their life. They are looking forward to coming back. This was part of their lives, too, and they are part of our family. It is a chain reaction for so many, including our staff who have been with us 20 years or so. There have been so many sleepless nights because that is all we talk about and think of.”
Added Raz: “We’re not giving up. We’re just thinking, ‘What’s next?’” Omar’s Shoes is planning to have a closing sale as soon as health restrictions allow.
Brock Weir is a federally funded Local Journalism Initiative Reporter at The Auroran