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Economy not bad for everyone


Senior Member
Dec 7, 2008
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In a Sole Revival, the Recession Gives Beleaguered Cobblers New Traction
Penny Pinchers Bring Trade Back From Brink; Makeover for Dog-Mauled Manolo Blahniks

LAKELAND, Fla. -- "I haven't seen shoes like this in 25 years," marvels Jim McFarland. The narrow hall of his small shoe-repair shop is piled high with reheeled stilettos, resoled boots and polished oxfords.

Mr. McFarland, a third-generation cobbler, is riding a shoe-repair boom. Since mid-November, he has been juggling roughly 275 repair jobs a week -- about 50% more than usual. "I'm so busy right now it's unbelievable," he says.

The recession is battering big swaths of the U.S. economy, but it's given a new lease on life to the tiny shoe-repair industry, which has been shrinking for decades. Nationwide, cobblers and their suppliers report markedly higher revenues than a year ago, as newly frugal Americans opt to repair their shoes rather than replace them.

"Our business is very, very strong in an industry that has been depressed and declining for many years," says Lee Efronson, owner of Miami Leather Co., a wholesaler of shoe-care products to cobblers since 1959.

In assorted nooks of the national economy, the recession has provided a welcome jolt. RÃ
writers have seen an upsurge in business from customers looking for jobs. Auto mechanics say they are getting busier keeping old cars on the road. And employment lawyers are picking up clients swept up in the waves of layoffs.

It appears that the good news for cobblers means bad news for shoe retailers. Retail sales of adult footwear declined 3.2% in the 12 months that ended in November, from the year-earlier period, according to NPD Group Inc., a market-research firm.

Lawrence Sutton hadn't set foot in a shoe-repair shop in years. In November, the 36-year-old insurance-company owner walked into Mr. McFarland's storefront in a strip mall in this town east of Tampa to drop off his wife's black Prada pumps, which had a broken strap and worn heels. "It's better to pay $40 to fix them than $500 for a new pair," he explained. His job is secure, he said, but he's concerned about the economy and is watching his wallet.

There are just 7,000 shoe-repair shops left in the U.S., down from more than 120,000 during the Great Depression, according to the Shoe Service Institute of America, a trade group. Today's cobblers lament that young people are less inclined to learn the trade from their fathers or take it up on their own.

"We fix everything except broken relationships," says 52-year-old Alex Romanov, owner of Chagrin Shoe Leather & Luggage Repair in Woodmere, Ohio, where sales have increased about 25% from a year ago. "Nobody wants to do the job anymore."

That includes his 25-year-old son, Ilya. Uninterested in learning to repair shoes, the junior Mr. Romanov in 2006 started an online extension of his father's business. The business, AmericanHeelers.com, receives about 100 pairs of shoes a week by mail from customers around the country; they're serviced by his father's shop. The mail-in model works, says Ilya, because "people live in places that don't have a shoe cobbler anymore."

Ron Johnson says his Tampa cobbler shop has seen sales increase nearly 50% since June. Jamie Imes, 31, recently drove a half hour to get there. She says she doesn't know any shoe-repair shops closer to her home in San Antonio, Fla.

Ms. Imes, a mother of four, says she's taken her husband's shoes to cobblers before. But now, she says, "to be more economical," she's giving her own shoes a makeover, starting with a pair of battered tan Bjørndal sandals.

Mr. Johnson, a bald, burly man, learned shoe repair from his father. He taught it to his son, Larry, more than a decade ago, but his son became a truck driver. These days, Mr. Johnson works on about 400 pairs of shoes a week, up from about 275, and he's concerned about hanging on to his three employees. Previous employees, he says, have left after just six months, in part because of the low starting pay -- around $25,000 a year. "I pour my heart into them, and then they'll leave," he says.

One reason the ranks of cobblers have thinned is that it can take up to four years to learn the trade. Another barrier to entry is pricey equipment. Finishing machines, for example, come with trimmers, sanding belts, and buffers, and can cost more than $20,000.

Jeff Lipson, owner of Cobblestone Shoe Repair in Creve Coeur, Mo., says his sales have nearly doubled from a year ago. He says the trade had suffered in recent years partly because people aren't aware how much today's cobblers can do. Gear such as heel trimmers, shoe stretchers and hydraulic presses makes it easier to restore footwear made of newer synthetic materials.

"They come in here with their tails between their legs," says Mr. Lipson. A distraught first-time customer, he says, recently dropped off a pair of black leather Manolo Blahniks that her dog had mauled. Mr. Lipson says he made them look like new. "She hugged me," he says.

Inexpensive shoes sold by discount stores have also been a bane to the craft, Mr. Lipson says. Shoppers get into the habit of tossing them after six months and buying new ones.

Mr. Johnson, 55, recalls watching his father holding nails between his lips, removing them one at a time, when resoling shoes using a French hammer. "I've got a machine that shoots three nails a second," he says. "I can do the work of three or four of my dads with modern-day equipment."

Until recently, speed wasn't much of a concern for many cobblers because business was disappearing. Mr. McFarland says he now sees new customers arriving regularly, including young folks who have never visited a cobbler. He's grateful, he says, to have a part-time shoe shiner and apprentice to help out.

In spite of his reversal of fortune, Mr. McFarland, who is 44, remains wary about the future. He says he hopes the recession will prompt first-timers and infrequent customers to become regulars, so that the profession will stay alive. "What's hurt us over past 25 years is many people didn't know these places existed," he says.

Last week, Jessica Maugeri, 24, paid her first visit to a cobbler -- Mr. Johnson. She needed a fastener for a $60 pair of chocolate-brown Steve Madden wedges. She says she never paid attention to his small shop during past trips to the mall. But she is tightening her purse strings, she says, so she decided to give shoe repair a try. "I'm glad there are places like this," she says.


Distinguished Member
Jan 14, 2007
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Great article. Thanks for posting.


Senior Member
Sep 19, 2008
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It's nice to see cobblers making a comeback.


Senior Member
Jan 4, 2009
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That's it? Only 7000 cobblers? Seems like 6000 in Manhattan alone b/c you can find a cobbler as easy as a Starbucks (ok, not really)

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