October 6, 2017 at 10:00 AM
Each morning, Grace Eng delivers a newspaper to the cobbler shop across the street from her home in the heart of Washington's Petworth neighborhood. And each afternoon about 4 p.m., she returns to help the cobbler and his wife pull the wily string that switches off the neon "OPEN" sign in the front window.
Eng has lived in that same home on Upshur Street NW for most of her 70-plus years. She's seen flower shops turn into thrift stores. Barber shops and corner stores transform into trendy bars.
And through the decades, Philip's Shoe Repair was in the middle of it all. The Italian-immigrant-owned cobbler shop survived the 1968 riots after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. It survived the drug epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s, when many stores on Upshur Street were boarded up. And in more recent years, it has survived gentrification, sharing a commercial strip with a pizza joint that Bon Appétit magazine named one of 2017's best new restaurants in the country.
After more than 50 years in business — and nearly a century of shoe repairs in the small building — the old-school cobbler shop is closing. It's a devoted neighborhood business, Eng says, that has weathered Petworth through its ups and downs.
"It's a big loss," Eng said. "When I was a child, this was here. They're really nice, and he does the best work."
Owner Philip Calabro, 79, said Nov. 17 will be his last day in business. He and his wife, Lauretta, 85, who works the front desk and manages the books, are selling the building and retiring, taking a vestige of historic Petworth with them.
"I stand up all day. I never sit, my back bothers me," said Philip Calabro, his hands calloused and stained black with shoe polish. "It's always felt like home to me, this many years I spent here."
He apprenticed as a cobbler specializing in orthopedic shoes for about five years in his hometown village in Sicily. A family friend from his village had owned a shoe repair shop in Washington since 1924 and recruited the young Calabro to work with him in 1966.
At the time, Nick Cicala owned the small Upshur Street shop called Nick's Shoe Repair. The two men worked side by side for three years, until Calabro purchased the business and changed the name to Philip's Shoe Repair.
Inside the store, not much else has changed. It's filled with seemingly unorganized shelves of shoe polishes and leather cleansers, some dusted over from years of quiescence. Italian words flow through the room as the Calabros banter and talk on the phone to relatives. Wood-paneled walls are adorned with yellowed maps of Sicily and outdated calendars and signs. There's no computer inside; all sales are done by cash or checks, and all receipts are handwritten by Lauretta Calabro.
Philip Calabro hasn't bought a new shoe repair machine in decades, using classic Singer sewing machines that date back 100 years. He can't find a mechanic to fix the machines used to cut leather, sand shoes and even out heels. If one breaks, he must fix it himself.
"I either try to fix it, or I give up," he said.
Business has changed over the years, but with few other cobblers to compete with him, it's proved a steady way to make a living. A flow of longtime customers and millennials — many of whom discover the shop by word of mouth — visit to replace worn soles and wobbly heels, usually ranging from $30 to $90 per repair.
It's these customers, the Calabros say, they'll miss most. The couple know many of them by name, and when some older customers enter, Lauretta Calabro asks about their families before the conversation turns to shoes.
The memory that will resonate with her the most after she locks the shop's door the final time? One afternoon when her husband had to leave the shop unexpectedly, Lauretta Calabro volunteered to keep the shop open for the day. Philip Calabro was nervous about her staying there alone, but a customer who overheard the exchange said she would keep her company. The two women stayed in the store for hours until closing time.
"That was very impressive to me," Calabro said.
The Calabros live in Adelphi, Md., and are looking forward to traveling, spending time with grandchildren and no longer having to commute. Customers say they have earned their retirement, but don't know how they'll find a cobbler to replace Philip's Shoe Repair.
"When I needed shoes repaired, he was the man to do it," said Joseph Tillman, a D.C. taxi driver who has been coming to the shop since the late 1980s.
When regular customer Rachel Mickey walked in on a recent day, Lauretta Calabro asked how she has been feeling before collecting her two pairs of pumps.
"I used to get rid of my shoes until I found this place," Mickey said. "I don't know what I'm going to do."
As customers search for a new cobbler outside the neighborhood, Eng has just one more month to turn off that neon sign in the store's front window. Then she'll have a new neighbor on trendy Upshur Street.