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Family business leads to diagnosis

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But since 1968, Larry Karpf, the bespectacled proprietor of Austin Shoes, has been referring clients at his Forest Hills footwear store back to their podiatrists for diagnoses of foot ailments that the medical professionals sometimes missed.The 63-year-old Long Island resident says the personalized attention and professional prowess are hallmarks of the venerable women's and children's shoe store he inherited from his father 37 years ago. "I don't pretend to be a physician or a doctor of any kind - I'm a footwear specialist," said Karpf, who completed a three-week course at The Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine in Manhattan decades ago to perfect his profession. "Doctors know who I am. They send their patients to me." And sometimes, Karpf said, he sends patients to them.That kind of service and the store's on-going commitment to community projects, representing more than $1 million in donations to local groups over the last six decades, are part of the reason Karpf said customers keep coming back to his tiny shop at 71-24 Austin St., despite rising competition from big-name chain retailers along the stretch once known as the "Fifth Avenue of Queens.""We serve the community," he said of the dwindling population of mom-and-pop shops that line Forest Hills' premiere commercial strip. "The big chains wouldn't do that for you. They don't give you the time of day."Karpf said Austin Shoes, which is just six months older than he is, has occupied the same spot for decades, offering normal and specially adapted footwear to generations of discerning women and children. Karpf, his dedicated staff of two - Yuda Davydov, 22, and Charlotte Hoyt, 77 - and some part-time helpers who come in on weekends, turn out arch supports, insoles and other accoutrements for clients of all shapes and sizes.At any given time, there are more than 3,000 different pairs of shoes in stock, and Karpf knows where each and every one of them is stored. When he can, he buys American, although he said more and more shoes must come from Asia, Europe and South America to keep pace with the competition.Footwear has been in Karpf's family for generations. His Austrian ancestors were bootmakers, making the store a logical step for his father when he arrived in Queens."You can't be a dairy farmer if you don't know about dairy farms," Karpf said. "They did what they knew best. They made footwear."But Karpf may well be the last generation of his family to man the store. Hawkish parking meter enforcers prowl the block, scaring off drivers, and big chain retailers are moving in."I wouldn't let my daughters go into this business," he said. "There's no future for the small businessman."I predict that in maybe 20 years, you won't see any small retail shops," Karpf added. Ultimately the decline of the small retail outlet could mean the loss of thousands of jobs and a wealth of family tradition, he said."I think the consumers are going to pay the price," he said, telling the tale of countless elderly men and women who live in the neighborhood and can't exactly shop for their clothes and undergarments at stores such as The Gap, Old Navy or Victoria's Secret.In the meantime, Karpf said he'll keep up the fight."I get up in the morning (and) I get excited about coming to work," Karpf said. "I have a tradition here."Besides, at the shop there's never a dull moment."I get all kinds of feet in here," Karpf said. "You wouldn't believe the kinds of feet I get. "Everyday is a new adventure, so to speak."Reach reporter James DeWeese by e-mail at news@timesledger.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 157.

Posted 7:02 pm, October 10, 2011
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