“I turned 85 in March, and they had Hilry Trawick day in Andalusia. I’ve lived here all of my life. My mother and father divorced when I was a baby. Mama worked in the hospital, the cafes, and in people’s houses. Those were the only jobs she could get back then. She was strong, but she had five kids, and providing for all of us was rough. I started shining shoes on the corners and in barbershops when I was ten years old. I made ten cents a pair. Mr. Brooks hired me to come work at his shoe shop. So, I quit school in tenth-grade grade and started working for him when I was 14 to help my family. I am still here.
I bought the store in 1974 and became the first black man to own a business on the square. Mr. Brooks was a good and fair man. He wouldn’t let anyone else have this store but me. He also wouldn’t let me change the name, because if I changed the name to my name, the white men wouldn’t come in. The name is still Brooks Shoe Shop and some people call me Mr. Brooks. They come from all over so I can help save their shoes.
There aren’t many cobblers left. Everything I work with is old-school and authentic. My sewing machines are antique, over 100 years old, and I keep them cleaned and oiled so they will last a lifetime. It is getting harder for me to see, but I have been doing this for so long that my fingers know what to do and can thread the needle on their own.
I have repaired shoes for generations of families. I am self-taught and can do anything with leather. I repair shoes or build them up. I can work on saddles, luggage, and baseball gloves. I also make belts from snakeskin.
My mother helped out in the store. She was proud of me for owning a business in Andalusia. This was a tough place for Blacks to live. In the 50s, we couldn’t go into restaurants and stores. I think Woolworth was the first store we could go into. We could work there, but we couldn’t sit down and eat. We went in the back door.
Mama taught me to be nice to people but to stay away from crowds because they will get you in trouble, and to keep my mouth shut. When I was coming up, you couldn’t say anything to white people. That was hard, but if you said something, they would beat you whether you were right or wrong. That builds up inside, but we also knew it was a way of life and what we had to do.
My grandfather was named Hilry, and I am named after him. He was a sharecropper here. Every year the owner of the land told him he didn’t make any money.
Sometimes the land owner said my grandfather didn’t break even and gave him some meat and flour, telling him he hoped the next year would be better. That happened almost every year. There were only three or four big farmers who owned everything, and they were all together on it. But if my grandfather went somewhere else, he could have been treated worse than that.
I wanted to go into the service to get out of Andalusia and see the rest of the world. I qualified, but back then the boss man could keep us out. Mr. Brooks kept me out. I didn’t get to see the world, but I gave back to my community in every way I could. I cashed people’s checks because it was cheaper and easier than them going to the bank. Sometimes people would come in here just to talk.
My wife passed away in February. We were married for 61 years. She worked in the front of the store. It’s hard adjusting to life without her, but life goes on. I still have my daughters and play with my great-grandkids. They work in the shop and earn money for McDonald’s. I am proud of my family. I sent my girls to college and gave them things I never had.
I go to church on Sunday and play whist on Monday and dominoes on Saturday. Dominoes keeps your mind sharp, and Andalusia has The World Championship Domino Tournament in July. People come here from all over the world. We even have a domino that drops on New Year’s Eve.
I have slowed down a little bit. I used to get to the store at five a.m. and work until six or seven at night, at least six days a week. Sometimes I worked on Sundays just to catch up. Now I have more days off and work fewer hours. People say I can’t die or retire.”