When I first knew that my grandfather had made shoes for the entire family not as a hobby but as a regular, practical affair, I realized that once simple skills now seem to us to be ‘trade secrets’. My grandfather wasn’t a cobbler. Having what we now view as complex skills were common to many Italian men, and likely some women, in his time.
Today, it seems that we live in a world of shoes, getting a new pair on a seasonal basis, with no idea of where or how our shoes come. We even have a shoe museum in Toronto, the Bata shoe museum (ironically built by the Bata heiress to catalogue shoes from around the world as they became extinct when factory made Bata shoes took over). Shoes are exciting to look at, admire, and photograph. There is a mystique that makes the thought of any of us making our own highly unusual. Constructing a shoe seems to me as difficult as becoming an architect. But I feel that I get at least a taste of my grandfather’s handiwork by a discovery I’ve made at my local mall.
Down a narrow hallway that you need orientation skills to find is a tiny repair shop. Unlike the other gargantuan stores, you discover three men behind a small counter, in the process of fixing an array of shoes. The smell of glue and polish fade into the background of the comradery that these three men share, almost always with a friend visiting them.
Rows of beloved cowboy boots line the top shelves, while vintage heels and gaudy pumps mix with brown and black dress shoes on lower ones.In this tiny spot, people have made a commitment to their shoes – shoes can be understood, fixed, loved, and spared. Every single pair of shoes has the aura of the person who owns them, and won’t part with them.
I found myself imagining the faces of the people who had dropped off their shoes. Who had brought in the pair of purple satin heels: the emcee at her best friend’s wedding? After possibly breaking a heel dancing? Who had brought in the light beige cowboy boots, clearly long worn and better looking for it?
I discovered this place when I realized that I was going to have to part with a beloved pair of leather soccer type shoes, you know the kind you wish you’d have bought 4 pairs of. “They probably don’t make shoes like this anymore, because these shoes are too well made’ remarked the repair man as he admired the craft work. For the first time, I studied the lines of these flexible, soft black shoes.
Since coming to this spot, I have extended the life of these shoes to five years, with a $10 repair on a yearly basis.I have no intention of throwing them out any time soon. I’ve moved on to fixing my Aunt’s riding boots (yes, she really does ride) from the 1960s that she’s shared with me, with the ornate flower embroidery at the top of the boot; and having my leather moccasin slippers sewn back together, making me feel grateful that I don’t have to use more leather to get a new pair. I haven’t bought a new pair of shoes in years and I like my shoes a lot better now. I’ve made a commitment to them.
In a throw away society, where we could wince at the knowledge of increasing dumps and ocean garbage patches, getting something fixed feels like therapy. How many other repair shops like this could we have around for other goods? How many of us have dumped or recycled blenders, battery operated some things, or bike parts because we just couldn’t get a handle on the likely one simple thing that they needed changed?
What I like most about getting my shoes repaired is witnessing people in action, fixing things.Rather than a store that stuns us into coming in with visual displays, I’m comforted to see human intelligence at work: saving what can be saved, fixing what can be fixed, innovating when necessary, and making people’s lives a little more affordable, meaningful, easy. Its not an exaggeration to say that craft work and repair are skills that make our world easier, and more meaningful. I’m so glad to have avoided the garbage dump, and to have found this tiny stall instead.
Eventually, I have other plans for my little shoes, and other plans for my empty shoe holders.