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In Cobbler's Shops, Tough Times Are Mending a Moribund Industry

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By Marc Fisher
Thursday, February 26, 2009

Just down from Arin Simon's place, two storefronts are empty now. An auto parts store vanished a few weeks ago, after nearly half a century on Fenton Street in Silver Spring. The hurt is visible on nearly every block. Simon sees it all around him, but the bell on his door keeps ringing.

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"Can you do anything with these?" people ask, and they hand him old and well-loved boots, loafers with soles nearly gone, even cheap plastic Chinese shoes they bought at the discount place.

Simon, who has run Arin's Shoe Repair for more than 30 years, knows what all shoemakers know: When things go south, people dredge up vestigial memories of a time when you didn't just buy new shoes if a heel wore down.

"They will say, 'Times are tough. I need to hold on to these,' " Simon says.

Business at Arin's is not exactly booming -- suppliers keep jacking up their prices -- but neither is it declining, and that counts as a victory these days. Of course, two decades ago, Simon had three workers in the shop, and for the past nine years or so, he has been by himself. But that has less to do with the rise and fall of the economy than with Americans' turn away from handmade leather shoes toward the much cheaper, glued plastic products imported from China, Mexico and India.

At Philip's Shoe Repair in the Petworth section of Washington, Philip Calabro's shoemaking machines don't get much use anymore. They're Singers, beautifully engineered stitching, cutting and pressing machines dating to the 1920s and earlier; he has a shop full of classic old equipment, but hardly anyone can afford custom-made shoes now. So Calabro taps on heel plates -- $3, while you wait -- and replaces shredded soles and salvages shoes that a year ago his patrons would have trashed.

A few years ago, Calabro and his wife, Lauretta, tried to sell the place on Upshur Street NW. No buyers. "There's no shoemakers anymore," she says. So they stay, and now, as happens in every downturn, people come, grateful to spend $30 or $50 to fix shoes that might cost $170 new.

Their shops are time tunnels -- decorated with pictures of the old country, the back rooms crammed with machines nobody makes anymore, the whole place rich with the musky smells of leather and glue. These are family businesses that operate as they always have: cash-only, stapling renewed shoes into crisp brown paper bags, recording each transaction on cardboard tags.

They came from Italy, Turkey and El Salvador, arriving with a ticket to their American dream, the kind of skill hardly anybody teaches anymore. Theirs was a business of relationships; customers invested in their shoemaker as they might in a handyman or a plumber. A good pair of shoes might not gain value, but properly cared for by a craftsman who knew his stuff, it could last decades.

Calabro arrived from Sicily in 1966 as a specialist in orthopedic shoes; he has worked in this shop ever since. Simon came from Istanbul and worked in downtown shops until he saved enough money to buy his Silver Spring store in the early '80s. Neither could recommend their business to their children, who went into real estate, medicine, education -- clean work, brain work. Calabro and Simon believe theirs is the last generation of shoemakers.

Jorge Peña sees a different future. Three decades after arriving from El Salvador, he has just opened his second store, in Columbia Heights, to be run by his brother-in-law and nephew. Peña and his wife, Rosa, are enjoying a big recession boost -- 20 percent more revenue than last year at this time -- at their Adams Morgan shop, George's Shoe Repair, a startling surge of business he attributes to customers' need to save money in tough times and to an optimism born of the election of a new president.

Man walks in with three pairs of his wife's boots -- new soles and fixed heels, $96.23. "He's so happy because his wife won't spend $400 on new boots, and I'm happy, and it's $5.23 for the city, too," Peña says.

"Every shoe is a different story," says Rosa Peña, and she makes Jorge haul out the electric blue Cookie Monster slippers, a $10 fuzzy novelty item that somebody fell in love with. For $60 -- a bargain -- Peña has entirely rebuilt the slippers.

Some people still have cash to burn, I said.

No, Rosa replied, "nobody can afford luxury right now. But people love their shoes. It's love, not luxury."

Two more customers walk in -- long-cherished boots in desperate need of revival, work shoes hoping for a six-month reprieve from the dump. The talk is about saving what we have and about the neighborhood shoemaker -- a bulwark against the ravages of life in these troubled times.

Join me at noon today for "Potomac Confidential" at http://www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.


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