Meet Juan Cortes, the personable owner of SoBe Unique, a specialty shoe store in Miami Beach.
SoBe Unique is worthy of a look whenever you’re dining or shopping on trendy Espanola Way. For more than a decade, Cortes and his wife, Soledad, have sold stylish espadrilles, moccasins and leather sandals handmade in Spain. They also sell handbags pieced together by local artisans they employ. Heels, flats and sandals of all colors crowd display shelves and stand pigeon-toed atop shoebox stacks in the tiny shop around the corner from Espanola. Handbags of all sizes, patterns and strap lengths dangle side-by-side along the walls. Cortes is helpful and engages his customers. He’ll quickly convert orders expressed in U.S. shoe size to the corresponding Spanish size—by memory—and present his customer with a perfect fit on the first try. He’ll take time to explain that sandals might initially feel snug but that the leather soon will soften. The guy knows his stuff, but chances are he’s also made more than one sale through sheer likability. The son of a Spanish-born mother, Cortes is selling a forgotten way of life as much as sensible and comfortable footwear. “The espadrille is a classic shoe, the most popular shoe in Spain,” he says. “And we’re bringing here a timeless, traditional way of shoemaking.”
Thanks to the enduring popularity of the braided jute-heeled espadrilles, Cortes has built a second career—after departing the first with a change of course as abrupt as a pivot on four-inch heels. Before entering the imported shoe business, he spent 13 years in the gumshoe business. Cortes was a private investigator for the music industry, working on behalf of major recording artists and their labels to thwart CD piracy and copyright infringement. His territory was Florida and the Caribbean, and over the years he caught some high-profile cases. The travel and expense accounts were great and the work itself was satisfying, but as music transitioned away from physical recordings, Cortes found himself more restless than busy.
A Month in Spain Shopping for Shoemakers
Having grown up around the garment industry, he had a lifelong love for the art of shoemaking in Spain and the history of espadrilles. Some say espadrilles have been around in some form for thousands of years, but somewhat more-modern versions have been in evidence at least several centuries. “In the Spanish fishing villages, people used to wrap jute around their feet to walk through the marshlands,” Cortes says. The shoes gained prominence in America when Lauren Bacall sported them in the 1948 classic Key Largo, but by 2003, Cortes concluded that nobody in South Florida was selling the authentic, handmade variety. “So I took a month off and went to Spain,” says Cortes. “I rented a car, opened a phone book and drove all over—Barcelona, Madrid, Seville. I went to the islands, to Menorca. I was looking for the right people to make the shoes I wanted to sell.”
When he forged the right relationships, he returned home to enact his plan. He opened his first store in 2004 on Espanola Way, between 14th and 15th streets in South Beach. “I thought it was ideal,” Cortes says, and it was. The two-block stretch between Pennsylvania and Washington avenues is a busy, pedestrian-only mini international village. Its Spanish, Italian and South American restaurants, bars and shops are popular among vacationers and other well-traveled visitors—and offered the perfect exposure for Cortes and his little shoe store. SoBe Unique took off right away and has survived in a landscape of ever-changing shoe styles and tastes. “That’s the thing about espadrilles—they’re timeless,” Cortes says. “You could wear the same shoe 20 years ago, today or 20 years from now and never be out of style.”
Eventually Cortes opened a second location in Alexandria, Va., an area he became familiar with during his earlier career. He maintained both popular stores for four years by keeping them seasonal—Florida open during the traditional northern winter months, suburban D.C. in the summers. At one time he also engaged shoemakers in Brazil as well. Now he’s back down to one store, on Drexel Avenue half a block north of Espanola, and he’s selling shoes made only in Spain. But the store is open year round, and the downsizing is enabling Cortes to focus on new ways to deliver customer service.
Watch Your Handbag Being Made
SoBe Unique is open only Thursdays through Saturdays, but Cortes accepts customers outside those hours by appointment and takes email orders. He also invites first-time visitors to call (305.986.4168) or email (Shoes@Sobeunique.com) in advance so he can explain the neighborhood’s arcane parking rules or provide directions to an inexpensive city parking garage less than a 5-minute walk away on 16th Street. Moreover, Cortes will happily coordinate a special opportunity for shoppers interested in handbags. Given advance notice, he’ll set up his craftsmen on his shop floor so visitors can order bags and watch them being made from scratch, about a 2-hour process.
Nowadays, it’s almost as hard to find quality, attentive customer service as it is to find a reasonably priced quality, handmade shoe. When you’re in South Beach and looking for a shopping experience that offers both, visit SoBe Unique.
It just might be the right fit.