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By Carol Rust
Published: June 15, 1994

Robert Prather, 12, has been employed at C&L Boot and Shoe Repair for three years.

The pungent smell of shoe polish and leather wafts out of the Fifth Ward shoe shop and into the muggy day every time a customer pushes open the front door and lets it slap shut behind him.

Several men are getting their shoes shined, nodding hello to the newcomer from where they sit on elevated shoeshine chairs that resemble a line of low-key thrones.

The hum of the sole-stitcher and the soft drone of ceiling fans make a sleepy backdrop for talk that ranges from professional sports to speeding tickets. No one is in a hurry - a trip to C&L Boot and Shoe Repair is as much a visit as an errand, and no one ever goes for a visit in a rush.

Today, it's the Rockets they're talking about. The team has been discussed, scrutinized, managed, encouraged, decried and boasted about ever since it came to Houston in 1971. So have the Astros. And the Oilers.

In fact, just about anything that has been around during the past 50 years has been fair game for discussion over an old-fashioned shoeshine at C&L.

No one is sure exactly what day the shop first opened.

The only record is a yellowed newspaper article, undated, that crumbles a little bit more each time someone handles it. It is a picture of the Dorian brothers - Louis and Clarence - beaming at the door of their newly opened shop at 4911 Lyons Ave.

When the brothers married, Clarence opened a second C&L on South Post Oak and they operated their businesses separately. Louis died several years ago after never missing a day of work in his life. Folks wondered if his shop would stay open.

Tyrone, the youngest of Louis Dorian's sons, and his wife, Lillie, now operate the Fifth Ward shop, and the Dorian family plans to celebrate its 50th anniversary Monday evening with a reception sponsored by Texas Commerce Bank. The celebration will begin at 6 p.m. at the shop.

"C&L embodies what a small business is," says John Hernandez, vice president of Texas Commerce Bank, which has a branch just down the street from the shoe shop. "It is a stabilizing force in the community that it helped develop."

Over the years, the shop has become more than just a place to get shoes fixed. In a neighborhood where violence, poverty and decay are sometimes the only things in abundance, it has been a quiet icon of security. As the only family-owned black business in the Fifth Ward that has been continually open for five decades, it is a success story.

It is still one of the first stops for politicians running for office in the area. For years, it has been a refuge from street-corner fights: Roy Foreman, the Golden Glove boxer's brother, once said, "It was like a church or a safe house - they knew Mr. Dorian wouldn't let anyone bother them there."

Before desegregation, it was a place to see famous people. And Jackie Robinson, Sonny Liston, George Foreman, Floyd Patterson, Sarah Vaughan, Hank Aaron, Count Basie, Redd Fox, Joe Brown, Muhammad Ali, Tommy "Hitman" Hearns all brought shoes into C&L for repair.

It was a place to get help - from softball team sponsorship to a $10 reward for straight A's on a report card.

And for countless young boys with limited or no earning opportunities, it was a place to earn an honest living, sometimes $60 on a good day. But they had to measure up. Louis Dorian - "Papa Lou" or "Mr. Lou" to his young employees - required good grades in school before he'd even consider hiring a boy. And once hired, they had to maintain those grades and attend church every Sunday.

Tyrone and Lillie are keeping that tradition alive, too.

"It's for the kids' sake," Tyrone says of the three youths who work for him. "It helps them out by letting them be responsible, so when they get out into the real world, it's not going to be a shocker."

He also wants to continue his father's tradition of contributing to the community by conducting a series of business seminars in the shop at night.

"We've watched the Fifth Ward go down, and now we're ready to see things improve," he said. "This is the year it's going to start."

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