Raz and Mae Khamissa, along with their daughter Saarah, closed a significant chapter in their lives last week when they closed the doors of Omar’s Shoes for the last time.
It was the end of an era for the popular shoe store, which has been a mainstay at the Aurora Shopping Centre on Yonge Street at Murray Drive for nearly 52 years.
Omar’s announced their decision to close this past spring after being unable to come to a resolution with their landlord over rent relief for businesses left struggling due to the global pandemic. But, at the eleventh hour – this past Thursday, to be exact – relief came when the business secured a new space to re-open this December.
And, most importantly for the family, a new location in Aurora.
“Our origins are in Aurora, so it was killing is that we couldn’t find a spot in Aurora,” says Raz, who co-owns the business started by his father, Omar, more than 50 years ago with his wife, Mae.
“At one point, we decided that maybe we’ll just call it quits and we’ll find something else to do,” adds Mae. “But we thought of our staff. We thought of Adam and Gemma who have been with us from ABLE Network (an organization which, among other services, finds job placements in the community for individuals with intellectual disabilities) for more than 15 years. Our customers said, ‘You can’t give up.’”
A welcome development came from Mike Rice of The Rice Group, a company which has several commercial developments in the York Region community, including on Aurora’s Bayview Avenue corridor. Rice, a long-time customer of Omar’s Shoes, reached out to the family after several leads for other spaces within Aurora fizzled, with a few options on units that weren’t on the leasing market just yet but would be in short order.
Some of the potential units they looked at were too small, others were too far away from customers, but the unit they ultimately secured in the L.A. Fitness plaza on Bayview Avenue, just south of Pedersen, ticked all the right boxes – but moving from the older part of Aurora to an area which has grown exponentially over the last decade was not an easy one.
“With anything, location is important,” says Mae. “We were really stressed that we needed to be where there was lots of traffic, but our customers told us, ‘You don’t have to be. We’ll find you. You’ve got a brand, you’ve got the name, so find a place and we’ll find you.”
“Here,” she adds, gesturing towards their new unit, “has great traffic, has exposure, and the traffic is on this side of Town. We wanted to stay on the other side of Town, but a lot of our customers said, ‘Listen, we live on this side of Aurora but remember something: most of us who are on this side of Town will still come to you, but there is a difference – our kids have grown up and moved away, so you don’t have that traffic, but younger families are at that end of Town. You’ll have us and you’ll gain newer families,’ and that is how we came to our decision.
“We have had staff with 20-odd years with us, they were all in distress [about closing] saying, ‘This is where we come to be with our other family.’ They were so anxious over the last few months, texting and calling, asking if we found something. ‘Did we find something?’ We. At the end of last week, when finally everything was okay with the Rice Group, we called them all in together, we had a huge family meeting and just the happiness in the room was amazing.”
The Khamissas plan to fully re-open Omar’s Shoes in their new Aurora home this December, just in time for holiday shopping. In the meantime, as their new space is readied, their landlords have offered them a temporary smaller unit in the plaza which they hope to operate as a pop-up store as early as September.
They are also brainstorming how to ensure the next chapter of Omar’s honours the one that has just closed. They aim to incorporate many mementos into the new store as possible that were recently uncovered, some long forgotten, as they packed up 51 years of memories in their old location.
“I think it is really exciting that it can continue,” says Saarah, the third generation to join Omar’s. “That is mainly why I got into this business and wanted to help run the business with my parents and take over because it meant so much to me to be able to carry on my grandfather’s and dad’s legacies and everything they have done. I am excited this story hasn’t ended in Aurora and we can continue our story here.
“No matter what, Aurora will always be our home and we’re very happy to still stick around here.”
Brock Weir, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Auroran