Work stacking up for shoe-repair shops

WINOOSKI, Vt. -- There's nearly a four-week wait to get shoes resoled at Onion River Cobbler here. Normally, customers would have their footwear fixed in 10 days.

"This was the busiest summer I've ever had," says Steven Hopkins, who asks people at his 23-year-old shop to call him "The Cobbler."

If customers grumble about the long wait, he refers them to a sign hanging on the wall, which reads: "Lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on mine."

As household budgets tighten, the economy sinks and unemployment rates climb, stories like The Cobbler's are becoming increasingly common. People looking for ways to save money are turning to the shoe-repair business to help, cobblers and industry advocates say.

Cobblers at the nation's roughly 7,000 repair shops — down from more than 100,000 in the 1930s — are thriving, bordering on overwhelmed, says John McLoughlin, president of the Shoe Service Institute of America (SSIA), an industry group composed of volunteers.

"Everywhere you talk to right now, their business is just flying. They're doing absolutely fantastic. The only problem is keeping up with the work," McLoughlin says. ¶

Kelly Thorsen, 47, a secretary from Lakeland, Fla., visited a cobbler last week for the first time. "I can't go out and buy another pair of boots," she says.

So she brought her favorite footwear into McFarland's Shoe Repair in Lakeland for a $16 fix after finding $100 to $200 price tags on potential replacements. A mother of two, Thorsen says the tough times mean she can't spend that much on new shoes — plus, she gets to keep her trusty 10-year-old boots. "Not only am I going to have back my very favorite pair of shoes, … I'm saving a lot of money," she says.

Store owner Jim McFarland says he's had a lot of customers like Thorsen lately. "I've seen more shoes in here in the last 10 days than I've seen in years," says McFarland, a third-generation cobbler.

At Salzman's Shoe and Boot Repair in Greeley, Colo., owners Sally and George Salzman are growing busier — as they always do when times are tough, Sally Salzman says. "People get things fixed rather than throwing them out," she says.

Nelson Ramos, owner of Corrective Shoe Repair in Washington, D.C., added some help to keep up with demand. "I rehired one of my guys to get us through the fall and winter," Ramos says.

Cobblers know their success comes as many people, customers included, are hurting. "I have people come in here who've been laid off after 20, 30 years," says McFarland, a former SSIA board member. "My 401(k) that I've been saving for 15 years is in half, man. I want the economy to thrive. But at the same time, the shoe-repair industry is almost bulletproof. When it's really hard out there, I thank God I'm in this business, because at least I know I can pay my bills."

McLean and Silverman report for The Burlington (Vt.) Free Press.

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