Once upon a time in the not-too-distant past, you could find a shoe-repair shop in every community, and perhaps even one in every neighborhood in a large city. A pair of shoes was expected to last, and when a heel finally wore down, it could be replaced with a brand-new one, extending the wearable life of the footwear. I don’t want to jinx anybody by calling them a “dying breed,” but let’s face it: Shoe-repair persons are few and far between. Not many young people are setting their sights on this career path.
Fortunately, our area boasts a few remaining, functioning shoe-repair shops where a favorite pair of Gucci sandals or 30-year-old cowboy boots or classic penny loafers can be brought back to life. This intrepid reporter tracked down three such establishments in the Hudson Valley just last week to learn a little more about the business.
C & F Shoe Repair, Poughkeepsie
C & F Shoe Repair is owned and operated by Refugio Contreras, who opened in Poughkeepsie in September of 2014. “I have been doing this work for 31 years, starting when I was 13 years old, back in my country: Mexico. When I came to this country in 1994, I was living in Brooklyn. My former boss there came to live in Hopewell, and he is the one who told me to move up here. Finally I decided to move, but I kept my job in the City.” This involved a grueling commute, he says. “It was hard to take care of our kids, because my wife was working in the City, too. That’s why I decided to start my own business here.”
C & F is painted bright yellow and is nicely decorated with splashes of red. A raised shoeshine platform holds two upholstered chairs for walk-in service. “Back in my country, this is the way we do it: nice and clean. My former boss says, if everything looks nice, it shows you care about what you are doing. People are confident when they see the work.”
His work ethic seems to be paying off. Customers walk in and out as we speak first thing in the morning. Contreras’s shoeshining business is increasing, too, as downtown workers learn that it’s available. “Those shoe repairs still in business often don’t do shoeshine. We’re in the business district. It’s a place for people to come and sit to get their shoes done. Business is picking up. Hopefully, soon I’ll have to hire someone.”
We talk about how our disposable sensibilities basically call for throwing things away when they break. “Unfortunately, in America it’s become a throwaway society,” he says. “They don’t want to repair things. They just throw away and buy new ones. Before, everybody wanted to fix their things; you have a nice coat, you want to fix it. You don’t want to buy a new one. Same thing with shoes, cars, furniture. I understand because of the quality, it’s sometimes cheaper to buy new ones. But we can save money if we repair. And it saves our world.”
Contreras shows me his workspace, which has a handy sliding smoked-glass window through which he can watch for customers. A widescreen TV is mounted up on a wall. His machines are heavy-duty, industrial-weight. He says that he knows how to fix his own machines if they break down. “When I was young and one of the machines in my boss’s shop had to be overhauled, I watched the mechanics to learn. You just need to pay attention to details. As I learned how to use the machine, I paid attention to how the machine works. My boss at that time, he never told me, ‘Don’t do that.’ He just said, ‘Be careful.’ There are new machines with new technologies, but for now in shoe repair, it’s mostly about what you know, your skills. You can find a way to fix shoes properly. These days it’s mostly man-made materials.”
In addition to repairing shoes, a good craftsman will know how to deal with bags and coats and other items that would not fit into a regular sewing machine. I asked if there is anything that he can’t do. Contreras picks up an old leather jacket that looks like it has seen better days. “This one is from the early 1900s; it was thoroughly stiff. I’ve been hydrating the leather to soften it, and it’s going to be redyed and finished. I’ve been doing this kind of restoration for all these years. I even repair cloth backpacks, and do alterations, too. Ten years ago I took a class for sewing and clothing alterations. I know how to make shoes and handbags from scratch.
“When I started as apprentice, and because I had the patience, my boss back then put me on detailed jobs. I’ve developed all the skills. In the City I was the manager of the store, and I had to train many employees. You want the work to reflect your work ethic. To update my skills, I look on the Internet at videos to learn how those new shoes are made. You just have to invest your time.”
Contreras is in his mid-40s. He’s got the time and the desire to do a good job. The shop is at 1 Civic Center Plaza, Suite 104, on Main Street in Poughkeepsie. Contreras is hard at work from 9 to 6 Mondays through Fridays, and 9 to 4 on Saturdays: (845) 471-7298.
Dr. Shoe, Newburgh
Jamie Park and her husband Tae have been in the business for almost 20 years in Newburgh. Their shop, Dr. Shoe, is located in the Newburgh Mall, a situation that Jamie says might cost a little more in rent, but has its advantages, too. They don’t have to shovel snow, for one thing. They feel safe with all the foot traffic that passes by, along with mall security. And they don’t have to mess with heat, air conditioning and other utilities. Mall tenants are obligated to be open a certain number of hours and days, however, which puts the burden on small shop-owners like the Parks who rarely hire part-time employees.
“We’d love to hire someone, but we cannot. Working with my husband, it took me three years to figure out what to say to customers to get the price. You can’t really train someone for years. And this space is not big enough; the amount of work that comes in is not enough to pay the person. My husband is doing more than one person’s job, and working all the time with no break, no recharging. We have to take some days off, but we’re kind of stuck in here!” Her words sound harsh, but she’s animated and having a great time describing everything to me.
“You don’t see many shoe-repair shops in shopping malls. They have regulations. You’re not supposed to be closed. Luckily, since we’ve been here for a long time, we do close on Sundays. I called them one day and said, ‘I’m gonna die in here! You’ll find two bodies laying here on top of the shoes one day, ‘cause we’re gonna die.’ So they let us close on Sundays. Still, you need that one week off; I haven’t had that for 20 years.”
Immigrants from South Korea, they epitomize a work ethic that calls for commitment and responsibility over the long haul. There’s no getting rich quick in shoe repair. Jamie is a licensed cosmetologist who worked in the City until having a family made the commute impossible. She has run the front end of Dr. Shoe for ten years. I ask if Tae learned the trade in Korea. “Of course, here! Most Korean people who come don’t speak English, so who you meet, who your friend is when you come to the country – if you have a friend who’s in a deli, you get into it. Drycleaning is another thing.
“My husband had a friend whose father had a shoe-repair shop. He was getting ready to retire. So, my husband says, ‘Okay, I will learn this for a couple of years, and then I will get into something else.’ He got stuck! Whatever you’re doing, it’s not easy to learn everything. And once you learn, it’s not easy to change. Now he’s almost 60, and he says, ‘I could do it up to 80! And retire!’ You get slower. When you’re young, you’re quick. But now we’re slower.” She laughs as she demonstrates walking back and forth, bent over behind the glass counter.
“All the prices are in my brain. My brain is about to blow up! When I look at a job, my brain starts calculating: How much it’s gonna take, how much it is. Then, ‘Oh, this shoe is so cheap, I cannot charge that much. I have to cut the price!’ I used to remember the prices of all the products; not any more – I cut that out of my brain.”
Like other shoe-repair shops, Dr. Shoe does standard repairs, stretching and stitching, leatherworks, customizing pieces including saddles, belts, building orthopedics: everything that a tailor cannot do. The shop is located in the Newburgh Mall at 1401 Route 300 in Newburgh. Hours of operation are 10 to 7, Mondays through Fridays, and 10 to 6 on Saturdays: (845) 566-0895.
Red Hook Shoe Repair, Catskill
Roger Benn is in his mid-70s. He has been repairing shoes (and selling everything else under the sun) since his apprenticeship at the age of 13, with a two-year timeout to serve in Viet Nam in the 1960s. On Saturdays, he heads to Red Hook and Saugerties to pick up shoes from dropoff locations. At one time, the Benn brothers had shops in Red Hook, Saugerties, Hudson and Catskill. Now it’s just this one location, and Benn says that he has enough to keep him busy.
“I started fixing shoes in my basement back in 1955. Then I went to apprentice with an old shoemaker on Market Street in Saugerties for five or six years. After the Army, I came back and started fixing shoes again, and we opened the stores. That old shoemaker asked me if I wanted to come in and learn. I apprenticed for five years for no pay. Now I have an apprentice in here to learn. I want to wind down a bit – maybe go and do some visiting, you know.”
At one time Benn also ran a variety store. His walls are crammed with leftovers from that endeavor. “In this type of business, I sell a lot of different stuff here, too. Maybe the only way you survive. This business is nothing like it used to be in the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s. And a lot of stuff that’s made now in China – some you can repair and some you can’t. Many people who come in, you gotta tell them, ‘No, it’s not worth putting any money in this.’ Maybe it’s not that you can’t fix them, but if it doesn’t hold because the glue doesn’t heal well to it, now you’ve gotta keep doing work for free. You can’t make any money that way. Years ago the business was super.
“You do a good job and guarantee your work; if somebody brings something to me and I fix it, if it comes apart, they can bring it back and I will not charge them again.” He gets his materials stock from Virginia, the Carolinas and locally from warehouses in the Utica area. “I try to buy all products made in the USA: the leather, my rubber, my cement. But if I need some specialty soles, they might not be made here.”
His new apprentice comes in most days. “I’m hoping by the first of the year, he’ll take over the whole thing,” he says. “I’ve got a couple of problems from the Agent Orange in Viet Nam, so… At one time I had all four stores going. Red Hook and this store were fully equipped. My apprentice? I used to fix all his boots. And one day he said, ‘Maybe I’d like to learn this.’ He’s in his 40s. I started in my teens. There is a school to learn shoe repair, but it’s very expensive. I tried to get the college interested in doing a course with the kids. It’s a good trade for somebody.”
He shows me the leather that he uses to make belts for Dallas Cowboys fans, for a mother whose children died, for Harley-Davidson riders. “I sew the patches on their motorcycle jackets and their vests. I even make weightlifting belts. The shop in the back is full of equipment. I’ve got great big grinders and sanders and cutters and a buffing machine and six sewing machines. And a big hydraulic press.”
He also learned how to fix his broken machines after a $1,500 repair charge. “I bought a book on it. I can’t let somebody… Once I had a brand-new stove put in, and I stood there watching the whole time. The guy says, ‘What are you looking at?’ I says, ‘I want to make sure you’re doing it right.’ He says, ‘I know my job.’ I says, ‘But you know what? I kinda know what it’s all about, too.’
“The times have changed and everything is automatic now. It’s all ‘replace it, replace it. Don’t repair it, replace it.’ The thing is, almost every shoe you could repair, but it costs too much for some of them because of the different material. It’s too expensive. When you give people the price to fix something, it’s ‘Oh, it’s that much?’” He talks about owning your building, as opposed to renting and paying insurance and so forth.
“When I retire next year, I’ll come in to see if the new guy has any problems. It’s good sometimes; they do need someone to show them. I did. I wouldn’t even take any money from him. Somebody needs a break in life. I never got a break, but if you can help somebody, that’s good. This industry – you learn a skill that you could take anywhere.”
Red Hook Shoe Repair is located at 374 Main Street in Catskill. You can catch Benn in his shop Tuesdays through Fridays from 10 to 3:30: (518) 943-4086.