This is the 10th edition of Fulton Families, a monthly series which tells the stories of families that have either lived in Fulton for ages or perhaps only a short while — but their common bond is they love the city and wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.
By Ashley M. Casey
Fulton is familiar with the Cortini Brothers from head to toe.
Your ears have probably caught their musical stylings at the Fulton Jazz Fest or Tunes in June, and your feet may have stepped into a pair of shoes Joe Cortini has repaired or sold.
The Cortinis have seen Fulton change over the course of more than a century. Although Kimo Cortini moved away three years ago, Joe Cortini and his son still call the city home. Through Cortini Shoe Store and the Cortini Brothers’ band, the family’s ties are still laced to Fulton.
The first Joseph Cortini — Joe’s grandfather — moved to Fulton from Italy in 1907. He returned to his home country to bring back his wife, Doralda, and his three daughters, Thisbe, Emma and Victoria, in 1911. Their sons, John and Joseph C. Cortini Sr., were born in Fulton, and Joseph the father opened Cortini Shoe Store. It was passed down from father to son — Joe’s father.
The Cortinis lived and worked on Oneida Street, just near the Dizzy Block. Young Joe and his brother, Kimo, would help out in the store and were paid weekly for their efforts.
“Even as a young child, I was allowed to come downtown by myself,” Joe recalled.
He would save the money he earned from working in his father’s shoe store to buy hot fudge sundaes from Foster’s, model cars from Woolworth’s and record albums from Greco’s.
“Downtown was my playground,” Joe said of growing up during Fulton’s golden days, before urban renewal.
Joe said there were numerous stores for menswear, dresses, shoes and more.
“It was very busy and active. We had a lot of small retail shops,” Joe said of the former Fulton. “It was comprised mostly of small businesses. There were no Walmarts or Penneys. Even the drugstores were independently owned.”
‘A hard time saying no’
Although operating the family business took a lot of time and hard work, it brought the Cortinis together. Joe said his father “placed a lot of value on being together as a family.”
“The nice thing about growing up in the family business was my mom and dad were always quote-unquote ‘home,’” he said. “If I wanted to see my dad, I just had to go down to the shop.”
Joe and his brother, Kimo, have fond memories of spending weekends at their family’s camp in Fair Haven. It’s a tradition they continue today with their own families. Joe always enjoyed working in the family business, so he continued on as an adult.
“I went to college for a year and decided it wasn’t for me — or maybe college decided I wasn’t for it,” Joe said. “I got locked into the family business. I like providing a service people can’t get anywhere else.”
Joe said he, like his father, has “a hard time saying no” to customers’ requests for certain custom shoes or canvas work.
“A lot of services we offer at the shop came about because my father couldn’t say no to a customer: ‘Can you sew a zipper into a pair of blue jeans? Can you repack a wrestling mat?’” Joe said. “He would always say yes. That has really enabled us to grow our business.”
That aim to please has kept Cortini Shoe Store in business for a century. While it is tough making ends meet in an increasingly big-box economy, Joe said every day, “A customer will thank us just for being there.”
He said he is proud of being able to carry on the family business.
“We’re over 100 years … in the same family. I don’t know how many other local businesses can make that claim,” he said.
Both Joe and Kimo said they learned a lot from working with their father.
“When you’re at work, you’re there to work and not goof off,” Joe said of his father’s lessons.
He credits Joe Sr. with his work ethic. He recalled his first day as a janitor at Miller Brewing Company, when he astonished his supervisor by finishing what should have been an entire day’s job in only three hours.
Although Kimo did not continue on in the family business — he’s now a nurse at the Syracuse VA Medical Center — the time he spent in the shoe store left him with lifelong skills.
“I learned how to communicate with people through my dad,” Kimo said. “He was a very honest, gentle person. … He was very kind, but he also didn’t allow much detour from a positive path, and that’s what I try to instill in my children.”
Band of brothers
Hard work isn’t the only legacy Joe Sr. left his sons. He passed on his love of music and the Fulton community to the boys as well.
Joe Sr. was a founding member of the Fulton Gauchos Drum and Bugle Corps, and he and his brother, John, played together as well.
“(They) were the go-to guys for any event taking place,” Joe said.
In 1980, Joe Sr. received a last-minute call on a Friday afternoon asking if he could play a show that night. He passed on the opportunity — he had to get up early the next day for the start of bass fishing season — but his son offered to take his place.
Nine years later, Joe (on drums) and Kimo (on piano and keyboard) started their own band with two other members. Since then, the Cortini Brothers have performed at numerous area music events and have appeared on other local artists’ recordings.
“It’s made both of us very recognizable,” Joe said. “Playing music is a great way to make other people happy while making yourself happy.”
As for what else makes Joe Cortini happy, it’s reaching his fellow Fultonians through his business and his band. He urges people to support their local businesses to revive the city.
“If you don’t buy a cake from Price Chopper or Walmart, they’re not worried about it,” he said, “but if you don’t buy a cake from Kathy’s Cakes, they feel it.
“When was the last time you stopped into a chain restaurant and they said, ‘We haven’t seen you in a while’?” he said. “We need to support small businesses. They are the lifeblood of the community.”
Joe said he is proud of his business and his musical successes with his brother, but none of it would have happened without the support of the people around him.
“Whether it’s a customer in the shop or someone in the crowd at one of our shows, and I get that ‘you guys are great,’ I always make sure they know: without you, we’re nothing,” he said.
The Cortini Brothers
Joe Cortini lives in Fulton. He is the owner of Cortini Shoe Store and has a 6-year-old son, Joey.
Kimo Cortini lives in Jamesville with his wife, Kelly, and two sons, Jake and Damiano. He works as a nurse at the Syracuse VA Medical Center.