This article originally appeared on SFGate on May 3, 2009 by Jen Burke Anderson
Between San Francisco’s car-less lifestyles, steep hills and sidewalks in ill repair, we hoof it hard in this town, and our shoes show it.
With a recent survey reporting that 49 percent of Americans are cutting back on apparel purchases, it may be only a matter of time before San Franciscan shoe worshipers learn to mend, not spend.
For the truly shoe savvy, a relationship with a trusted cobbler’s shop has always been money in the bank. These neighborhood institutions have staying power, can keep you looking smart for the right price and offer a range of services that might surprise you.
According to Randy Lipson of the Shoe Service Institute of America, most of America’s estimated 7,000 cobblers are reporting that business has been up by 10 to 40 percent since September. In San Francisco, the fortunes of individual shoe repair businesses can vary widely depending on location, clientele and other factors.
Carlos Lopez owns Haight Street Shoe Repair, which, like many neighborhood shops, can trace its roots back to the 1920s. Lopez, who frequently looks up from his work to exchange a smile and a wave with passers-by on the street, estimates that his business has been down by as much as 40 percent since December. About 60 to 80 pairs have not been picked up or paid for.
Though business is rebounding now, says Gino Gentile of Anthony’s Shoe Service near Union Square, retail layoffs in the early months of this year sent shock waves through the business’ customer base. When Macy’s shed more than 1,000 jobs in early February, “we felt it.”
But Al Stanley of Pioneer Renewer in the Castro reports that business has been steady to crazy. “Lately, I’ve been getting so much work, it’s been snowballing,” he says.
It doesn’t cost anything to take a project into a cobbler’s shop for assessment. Besides polishing and heel replacement, they can add or alter straps, perform dye jobs and color repair (even on metallic material), adapt shoes to fit unique or troubled feet, stretch and waterproof shoes. They can also repair luggage, backpacks, umbrellas, motorcycle gear, zippers, buckles, belts and sporting equipment such as baseball gloves.
One service that’s been hot lately, says Gentile, is the application of sole protectors, which can add one to four years to the life of new shoes.
One of the problems that has plagued the shoe service industry is its aging customer base. According to Lipson, people ages 20 to 35 are least aware of cobblers’ services because they typically buy cheap shoes and throw them out.
But that may be changing. A recent Pew Reseach Center report confirms that young adults are more likely than other groups to be hurt by the recession, and the rising popularity of vintage clothing stores shows a willingness to reuse, repair and rethink existing clothing. Lopez, the cobbler of choice for stores such as Fluevog, reports that 75 to 80 percent of his customers are young people.
For those new to shoe repair, however, there may be an aesthetic disconnect. Trendy shoe boutiques flaunt chic, high-tech interiors. A reputable cobbler’s shop, on the other hand, may have country-western music, the cheerful disarray of craftspeople hard at work and machinery that’s older than your parents.
But don’t be fooled. Cobblers can work magic on your Jimmy Choos or your Prada bag.
I went to Pioneer when the straps on my oversize leather bag began coming apart. I was worried about how it could be fixed because the bag had unique features like mottled black mock leather, burnished-brass studs and delicate white contrast stitching. When I got my bag back, it was transformed. The cheap, cracking straps had been replaced by double layers of strong black leather with heavy industrial stitching and brass studs that matched the bag beautifully. Ironically, the superior craftsmanship and materials used for the repair may outlast the factory-made bag itself. The cost? $40.
Lipson isn’t surprised. “Everything (cobblers use) is better than new shoe material,” he says. Gentile, winner of the shoe industry’s 2006 Grand Silver Cup for shoe repair, uses bark pit tanned leather from Germany for his repairs.
“The consumer needs to give us the opportunity,” says Lipson. “Too many say what you said: ‘I didn’t think (the repair) could be done.’ ”
“People are protecting their investments,” says Gentile with a smile, “and this is where we come in.”