Bill Roase dabbed his eyes with a sleeve Thursday as yet another customer stopped by to mourn the likely closing of his shoe repair shop at Southdale Center.

A lease dispute over the Edina mall's efforts to beef up its food court threatens to squeeze out Ralph's Shoe Service, the oldest tenant at the nation's oldest enclosed shopping mall.

"It's been quite emotional for me today," said Roase, 52. "One customer came in, very upset. She put some money on the counter and said, 'This is for you.'"

His father, Ron, opened Ralph's Shoe Service at the mall on Dec. 7, 1956, about two months after Southdale opened. His grandfather started the business, operating out of a storefront on 50th Street and Xerxes Avenue in Minneapolis.

Southdale talked to Roase early last year about plans to build a bigger and more modern food court on the second floor, between Macy's and J.C. Penney. Ralph's Shoe Service was caught in the middle.

Through a series of discussions, Roase thought he and mall owner Simon Properties had agreed on a suitable plan to relocate. But on Monday, just three weeks before his lease expired, Roase said Southdale officials told him he'd need to foot the bill for his move -- not just to the final location, but also to a temporary spot on the third floor.

Still paying off a $65,000 loan for moving within the mall about seven years ago, Roase said he simply couldn't afford to move two more times.

"When we moved to this spot, I had people standing in front of the old place, calling me because they couldn't find me," he said. "And we were 400 feet away. To throw me on another level at the opposite end of the mall -- it's a dead zone. It would kill me."

Citing company policy, a Southdale official declined to comment on "private tenant-landlord issues."

Les Morris, a spokesman with Simon Properties' corporate office in Indianapolis, couldn't say whether it was common practice for merchants to pay relocation and build-out costs when forced to move.

Simon Properties, the nation's largest real estate company, has a "laser focus" on improving Southdale, Morris said, and the changes ultimately will benefit Edina and the whole metropolitan community.

"While I don't have any desire to talk about specifics with this tenant, this type of thing goes on all the time in our portfolio," Morris said. "These things happen, and we work with tenants."

Customers and well-wishers came in a steady stream Thursday after television reports on the store's plight.

"We drive to this mall, specifically to see [Roase]," said Jana Nash of Eden Prairie, who came to see if Roase could fix the stitching on her brown clogs. "He's a craftsman. We like that the mall gets improved. But to see him get pushed out like this -- this isn't improvement to us."

John Roslin, owner of Ruth Piano Movers in Crystal, came into the store with his son, John Jr., and offered to help Roase move. The heavy, industrial sewing machines, grinders and finishers came from Rouse's grandfather's original shop.

"It's a family business. I know how tough it is," Roslin said. "I'll donate the trucks, the time and the guys. It won't cost him a dime."

A Facebook page, "Save Ralph's Shoe Service," has more than 200 "likes," with groundswell support for the family business.

But barring a major change, Roase plans to turn out the lights on Christmas Eve. That will give him a week to pack up and move his equipment -- possibly into the garage at his house.

"I'm confused, I'm hurt," he said. "I don't know what's next. All this history."

Jackie Crosby • 612-673-7335