For Minas Karpathakis, good works are a matter of sole.
"Every place I go, they know me," said the Silver Spring shoe repairman. "They know my cap, I drive my white Mercedes, I have lots of gold chains, like Mr. T, yeah! And they say, 'Here comes Minas the Greek!' I make friends all over."
It is not an idle boast. Karpathakis is a storefront Zorba, dispensing hugs and homilies like cigarettes and coffee. Emotion swells his barrel chest; his polish-darkened fingers are stiff with inchoate philosophy.
He has a consuming confidence in human nature. ("I met him on the subway, and he started telling me the story of his life," marveled one admirer.) Through the thick lenses of his horn rims, his eyes slant bull-like up to the brim of his pushed-low fisherman's cap. And in his magnified view, every new face is larger than life.
"My heart is a baby," he announced, his consonants rippling. "God makes a good life."
This week, "Minas the Greek" held a grand opening of his new store at 1301 Fenwick St. that mixed faith, friends, good food and a few inevitable jokes in the finest Salonikan tradition.
The Rev. Demetrius Heliopoulos, a retired Greek Orthodox priest, arrived Tuesday in full gold-embroidered regalia to "bless your soles," although he had to sprinkle holy water from a branch of a jade tree instead of the traditional sprig of basil.
Karpathakis' wife Maria and various friends laid out a banquet of honeyed pastries and sweet cheese pies, taramosalata (the pink addictive spread made from caviar and olive oil), nut-stuffed candies and champagne.
Friends, employes of neighboring shops and first-time customers were sent off with CARE packages and admonitions to return. Even 24 hours later, despite the mimeograph-fluid smell of waterproofing spray and the chocolate-flavored coffee Maria Karpathakis favors, a trace remained of Father Heliopoulos' incense.
The Karpathakises moved here from Salonika almost 10 years ago, shortly after they married. Maria Karpathakis was already a U.S. citizen from a previous five-year stay. "On my mother's side, I have family here for 200 years," she said.
They arrived with $600; Minas Karpathakis spoke no English and knew nothing of the shoe repair business where his wife's brother worked. At first, in fact, Minas Karpathakis was a little jealous: His wife became a manager at a shoe repair plant while he was handed a simple gluing job.
But "anything he sees, he can turn around and do it," Maria Karpathakis said. Minas learned by watching the trained repairmen and one day demonstrated his aptitude by resoling a new pair of boots. "My own," he recalled. "Maria said, 'Why your boots? They're brand new.' I said, 'They're brand-new again.' I not practice on the customers."
Eventually, he developed a specialty in resoling athletic shoes -- runners, joggers, sneakers, tennis shoes -- that has made him world famous.
"People mail me their running shoes from Germany, Italy, Australia, Greece, Bahamas, Puerto Rico," Karpathakis said. "A woman who works for an airline, she went to Nairobi for a year, she sends me her shoes."
"They send me a check for $35, $45, pays postage each way. I put the new soles, I restitch all this" -- he runs his calloused finger around the tops -- "I mail it back. In the United States, you mail to me, I pay [postage] the other way."
Six or seven times a year, Karpathakis drives his "baby," the Mercedes-Benz (license plate "Minas 1") to the major marathons, handing out his card and providing emergency repair for wounded shoes. He also restores the special orthopedically balanced shoes for runners with injuries or congenital problems such as fallen arches.
His new store is a reassuring throwback amid Silver Spring's frenetic renovations. "He's not exactly Mr. High Tech," as his subway acquaintance puts it. It's a one-man operation, a sit-down-and-visit shop with needlepointed seats on the benches and the dark green machines along the left wall. The decoration is pure melting pot: A hammered silver Madonna and painted St. Minas look from one wall across at a postcard of Abraham Lincoln and movie posters featuring Humphrey Bogart and John Wayne. More than that, it has an aura of honest pride. "People have no idea how much talent goes into this," said Julia Smith, a friend who came to the opening.
Karpathakis treats shoe repair as a creative process, restoring the balance of nature and artifice. Jerking his chin toward a woman he's just met, he mutters to his wife, and she pulls a pair of bedroom slippers from behind the counter. "He says you need new heels," Maria Karpathakis translates. "Put these on."