Longtime customers of Sam Torrey Shoe Service on Lee Highway in Arlington know that when they stop in for shoe and sundry leather repairs, more often than not the owner they know simply as Sam will be there, ready to take downtrodden heels, dislocated soles or leather purses that need new zippers.
What many customers, even those who’ve come in for more than 20 years, don’t know: “My real name isn’t Sam,” owner Kevork Tchalekian said. “Everybody calls me Sam, because it’s the name of the store.”
Tchalekian took over the business in 1986 from the first Sam Torrey, who started the store in 1945 at the site of the original Cherrydale Fire House (and who in turn shortened the store’s name from his own name, Sam Torragrosa).
For nearly 30 years, Tchalekian and a small staff of four to six — most of whom have been with him for the past two decades — have run a brisk business with a loyal clientele. At a time when small businesses relying on specialized labor are in decline in the region and across the United States, Sam Torrey is doing well.
“Business is good; I’m very blessed and fortunate,” said Tchalekian, whose parents emigrated from Lebanon when he was a child. They settled in Annandale and he has lived there ever since.
Part of the store’s success is because it fits a special niche.
“There’s not too many shops around here that do what we do,” Tchalekian said. “You can take it to the mall, they’ll do the basic stuff: shoes, heels, soles, but we do odd stuff like repair jackets, purses, belts, relace baseball gloves. We do lots of different stuff. Fireplace bellows, instrument cases. We do leather chairs. . . . Those are the kinds of projects I tackle.”
The leather workers at Sam Torrey serve as apprentices for about three to five years before mastering their craft.
Clarence Taylor, who resoles heels and does leather finishing, has worked at the store for about 17 years. He lives in Southeast Washington and works as a security guard for Capital City Protection Services on the weekends. Through his work as a skilled laborer at the store, he has paid for two houses and put his children through college.
Taylor recently showed a reporter the importance of exactitude in getting a heel to sit perfectly even and straight. He takes pleasure in customers’ delight at picking up a pair of shoes, finished and polished.
“I take pride in my work,” Taylor said. “I enjoy it. Lots of people do their work; they don’t enjoy it.”
Sam Torrey does have a bona fide Sam in the office: Sam Bosley works the cash register and handles other tasks around the store. Bosley started working at Sam Torrey about four years ago as part of a work-study program when he was a senior at H-B Woodlawn Secondary Program.
“He’s slowly learning the business,” said Tchalekian, who has been leaving Bosley to run the store for longer periods at a time. The store’s owner is also the only manager. The store only closes on Sundays, holidays and for part of August.
Falls Church resident Lisa Schauer, a customer who stopped in to pick up her calf-length Clarks boots, said Sam Torrey is among the last of its kind, because of manufacturing trends toward flimsier shoes — especially for women.
“This is something that’s not going to be there in the future,” Schauer said. “I bet if you look at his business, a lot of it is men’s shoes and boots. A lot of women’s shoes aren’t resoleable.”
From his vantage point as an observer of customers’ heels for nearly two decades, Taylor notes that shoe-wearing habits have changed over the years, as well.
“Everybody’s into fitness,” he said. “They’re all wearing tennis shoes. When they go to work, they’ve got tennis shoes on. When they get to the office, they put on their dress shoes. . . . People don’t wear their dress shoes as much.”
For now, Sam Torrey’s ability to perform specialized repairs ensures its services remain in high demand.
“We’re doing well because there’s not a lot of us around and we’re very popular to the area — we tend to keep pretty busy,” Tchalekian said.
But he’s also realistic about the dwindling of businesses like his own, which require years of skilled apprenticeship.
“It’s the way America is right now,” Tchalekian said. “You hear it all the time: America doesn’t have as many skilled laborers anymore. People don’t want to get into this type of business. The trend is not good in general. . . . It’s a dying business.”
Lanyi is a freelance writer.