It's hard to believe,
but people used to joke about the iconic American overconsumer -- the kind of
person who traded in his (or her) car for a new one when the ashtrays were
dirty, or who needed to buy a larger home because there wasn't enough room in
the closet for all the shoes she (or he) owned.
Nowadays, of course,
anecdotes like these probably wouldn't provoke much laughter, but might
instead leave many listeners scratching their heads and wondering what planet
the would-be comedian was living on.
Regardless, you only
have to read the following Wall Street
Journal report, "In a Sole Revival, the Recession Gives Beleaguered Cobblers
New Traction," to see that there has been a major change in
consumption habits and spending priorities.
Penny Pinchers Bring
Trade Back From Brink; Makeover for Dog-Mauled Manolo Blahniks
LAKELAND, Fla. -- "I
haven't seen shoes like this in 25 years," marvels Jim McFarland. The
narrow hall of his small shoe-repair shop is piled high with reheeled
stilettos, resoled boots and polished oxfords.
Mr. McFarland, a
third-generation cobbler, is riding a shoe-repair boom. Since mid-November,
he has been juggling roughly 275 repair jobs a week -- about 50% more than
usual. "I'm so busy right now it's unbelievable," he says.
The recession is
battering big swaths of the U.S. economy, but it's given a new lease on life
to the tiny shoe-repair industry, which has been shrinking for decades. Nationwide,
cobblers and their suppliers report markedly higher revenues than a year ago,
as newly frugal Americans opt to repair their shoes rather than replace them.
"Our business is
very, very strong in an industry that has been depressed and declining for
many years," says Lee Efronson, owner of Miami Leather Co., a wholesaler
of shoe-care products to cobblers since 1959.
In assorted nooks of
the national economy, the recession has provided a welcome jolt. Résumé
writers have seen an upsurge in business from customers looking for jobs. Auto
mechanics say they are getting busier keeping old cars on the road. And
employment lawyers are picking up clients swept up in the waves of layoffs.
It appears that the
good news for cobblers means bad news for shoe retailers. Retail sales of
adult footwear declined 3.2% in the 12 months that ended in November, from
the year-earlier period, according to NPD Group Inc., a market-research firm.
hadn't set foot in a shoe-repair shop in years. In November, the 36-year-old
insurance-company owner walked into Mr. McFarland's storefront in a strip
mall in this town east of Tampa to drop off his wife's black Prada pumps,
which had a broken strap and worn heels. "It's better to pay $40 to fix
them than $500 for a new pair," he explained. His job is secure, he
said, but he's concerned about the economy and is watching his wallet.
There are just 7,000
shoe-repair shops left in the U.S., down from more than 120,000 during the
Great Depression, according to the Shoe Service Institute of America, a trade
group. Today's cobblers lament that young people are less inclined to learn
the trade from their fathers or take it up on their own.
Plus, read about
other businesses booming during the recession."We fix everything except
broken relationships," says 52-year-old Alex Romanov, owner of Chagrin
Shoe Leather & Luggage Repair in Woodmere, Ohio, where sales have
increased about 25% from a year ago. "Nobody wants to do the job
That includes his
25-year-old son, Ilya. Uninterested in learning to repair shoes, the junior
Mr. Romanov in 2006 started an online extension of his father's business. The
business, AmericanHeelers.com, receives about 100 pairs of shoes a week by
mail from customers around the country; they're serviced by his father's
shop. The mail-in model works, says Ilya, because "people live in places
that don't have a shoe cobbler anymore."
Ron Johnson says his Tampa cobbler shop has seen sales increase nearly 50% since June. Jamie Imes, 31, recently
drove a half hour to get there. She says she doesn't know any shoe-repair
shops closer to her home in San Antonio, Fla.
Ms. Imes, a mother of
four, says she's taken her husband's shoes to cobblers before. But now, she
says, "to be more economical," she's giving her own shoes a makeover,
starting with a pair of battered tan Bjørndal sandals.
Mr. Johnson, a bald,
burly man, learned shoe repair from his father. He taught it to his son,
Larry, more than a decade ago, but his son became a truck driver. These days,
Mr. Johnson works on about 400 pairs of shoes a week, up from about 275, and
he's concerned about hanging on to his three employees. Previous employees,
he says, have left after just six months, in part because of the low starting
pay -- around $25,000 a year. "I pour my heart into them, and then
they'll leave," he says.
One reason the ranks
of cobblers have thinned is that it can take up to four years to learn the
trade. Another barrier to entry is pricey equipment. Finishing machines, for
example, come with trimmers, sanding belts, and buffers, and can cost more
Jeff Lipson, owner of
Cobblestone Shoe Repair in Creve Coeur, Mo., says his sales have nearly
doubled from a year ago. He says the trade had suffered in recent years
partly because people aren't aware how much today's cobblers can do. Gear
such as heel trimmers, shoe stretchers and hydraulic presses makes it easier
to restore footwear made of newer synthetic materials.
"They come in
here with their tails between their legs," says Mr. Lipson. A distraught
first-time customer, he says, recently dropped off a pair of black leather
Manolo Blahniks that her dog had mauled. Mr. Lipson says he made them look
like new. "She hugged me," he says.
sold by discount stores have also been a bane to the craft, Mr. Lipson says. Shoppers
get into the habit of tossing them after six months and buying new ones.
Mr. Johnson, 55,
recalls watching his father holding nails between his lips, removing them one
at a time, when resoling shoes using a French hammer. "I've got a
machine that shoots three nails a second," he says. "I can do the
work of three or four of my dads with modern-day equipment."
Until recently, speed
wasn't much of a concern for many cobblers because business was disappearing.
Mr. McFarland says he now sees new customers arriving regularly, including
young folks who have never visited a cobbler. He's grateful, he says, to have
a part-time shoe shiner and apprentice to help out.
In spite of his
reversal of fortune, Mr. McFarland, who is 44, remains wary about the future.
He says he hopes the recession will prompt first-timers and infrequent
customers to become regulars, so that the profession will stay alive. "What's
hurt us over past 25 years is many people didn't know these places
existed," he says.
Last week, Jessica
Maugeri, 24, paid her first visit to a cobbler -- Mr. Johnson. She needed a
fastener for a $60 pair of chocolate-brown Steve Madden wedges. She says she
never paid attention to his small shop during past trips to the mall. But she
is tightening her purse strings, she says, so she decided to give shoe repair
a try. "I'm
glad there are places like this," she says.
Michael J. Panzner
Michael J. Panzner is a
25-year veteran of the global stock, bond, and currency markets and the author
of Financial Armageddon: Protecting Your Future from Four Impending
Catastrophes, published by Kaplan Publishing.