Who repairs your shoes? – Beckett Simonon
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Who repairs your shoes?

Increasing the lifespan of your shoes is a group effort. First, there’s our choice in materials: the leather we chose for the upper, the quality of the rubber, EVA, or leather of the soles. Then comes the artisans’ impeccable construction that ensures your shoes are repairable. After that, there’s the way in which you care for them, with the right products and techniques. Finally, there are the cobblers.

A cobbler is an artisan in their own right. It is their knowledge of resoling, heel stacking, and upper fixing which ensures that durable, quality shoes can last for generations.

We spoke to two cobblers, Trenton from Potter and Sons and Tony from Wyatt and Dad Cobbler Company, about their businesses, and their trade:

Tony Wyatt, Wyatt & Dad Cobbler Company

How did your business come to exist?

My brother Richie Wyatt was the founder of our company. He started learning the trade in high school: he worked part-time with a cobbler he met in church in the late nineteen seventies. Then he went into the nuclear side of the navy, but when he got out jobs were hard to find. He was out looking one day when he walked into a shoe shop and the owner asked what he knew, instantly he said: “put your apron on, you are late for work”.

In 1989 he purchased the first store, in Salem. In 1990, I joined him and we taught our dad, who had retired from the ministry. That’s why we are called Wyatt and Dad because the son taught the father how to do the trade. Down the road, my son Lance came into the business too. Now we have a total of 14 people working for us and we are teaching them the trade. They are all under 40 because we want our company to last a long time.

I went to school to be an architect and I ended up working in a field where I made office cubicles, and floor plans that made offices run more efficiently. My brother was into nuclear power, nobody expected us to go into the cobbling business.

What does a cobbler do?

Cobblers are all-around fix-it guys for leather handbags, shoes, cowboy boots, and work boots. We resole, recraft, patch, dye and we also do a lot of customization of pre-existing shoes. We put new heels on, we clean and polish, and sew soles back on.

The important thing about using a cobbler is that when you buy nice shoes and the soles wear out, that does not mean that that is the end of the life of that shoe. A lot of us buy a shoe and get attached to it and when the sole gets a hole on it, getting them resoled breathes a new life into them. It means that you can buy higher-end shoes and not have to replace them so often. Maintaining those shoes through a cobbler makes it worth spending that money on shoes with better support.

How did you become YouTube cobblers?

We were growing the stores really well and then covid hit and business tapered off a lot. Actually, around 50% of the shoe repair shops here in the US closed. So Tobias and I decided to start making YouTube videos, letting people see what we do to drive people in. It created a mail-in business for us, which is growing by leaps and bounds now.

Also, because of our YouTube channel, we now have a lot of younger people reaching out to us saying they want to learn how to be a cobbler. So we redirected our channel to be more of a training platform, instead of just entertainment. We discuss a lot of how things are done and why they are done in that way so that people who want to learn can take those hints and clues to help them become better cobblers. Youtube has opened us up to young craftsmen who want to learn and customers who wanna have what they see us do.

What is the current state of the trade?

Unfortunately, there’s not been any formal training in the shoe repairing business for probably twenty-five years. So there are a lot of people out there who just taught themselves and these are shops people need to be wary of. I always recommend people to do their research and see the cobblers’ job to see if it's going to meet their expectations.

On the other hand, we are seeing a new wave of younger people who are learning about the trade and really like recycling and reusing older stuff and are interested in craftsmanship. That is breathing new life into our industry.

What does a day in the life of a cobbler look like?

We usually start out distributing the workload, sewing jobs, dye jobs, polish jobs, sole work, and heels. Even though we are working on shoes every day, every job is different because it is a new problem to solve. It is a really good career to have if you enjoy problem-solving and applying your artistic talents.

What sort of tools do you guys use?

Hammers, clippers, cutters, we have sanding units, trimmers for soles, we have multiple sewing machines: Blake stitching machine and Goodyear welted machines.

How many resoles can a Blake stitched shoe have?

A Blake stitch sole can be done multiple times. I have customers that I have done it five or six times for. It is a misunderstanding that Blake stitch is not able to be resoled as much as other soling techniques. How you take care and pride in doing the job determines how many times a shoe can be done. If done properly they can be done for years. I have a pair of Blake stitched shoes that are over thirty years old, they still look basically brand new and they have been through multiple soles, I don’t know when life will run out of them yet.

What does the process of resoling a shoe like ours look like?

We have to remove the original sole and we want to make the midsole loose and we want to make sure we did not pull something off and create a squeak. We clean everything off and we glue everything back together, then press it, get that midsole back on, and then we cut a channel around the bottom of the sole for the stitches to fall into so that they don’t get worn out too quickly and we put them on the McKay, which is the Blake machine. Then we attach the leather heel bases and then we attach the top lift.

Trenton, Potter and Sons

How did your business come to exist?

We had nothing to do with cobbling at first. Heath taught history in graduate school and I worked in a corporate job in healthcare. Heath took interest in shoemaking through YouTube, he got on eBay to buy tools and started to make shoes as a hobby. I saw dry cleaners come down to our building and I got the thought to start a pickup and delivery shoeshine business to coincide with the dry cleaners, which is now our sandals brand called Southern Polished.

In time people started asking if we also did shoe repair and we found a guy from Belarus that did them for three or four months until he wanted to retire and asked us if we wanted to buy his shop and we bought the place in 2014.

What does a cobbler do?

Cobblers primarily repair footwear. There is still an appetite for good quality leather shoes and those need to be fixed when the sole wears down. As cobblers, we can replace soles, heel caps, and toe caps, we dye leather and fix accessories.

What is the current state of the trade?

What we have found is that cobblers have started diminishing. We used to have a lot of immigrant families, especially from Italy, that came over to the US, and you would find them in every corner of New York. The trade would be passed down from father to son or daughter. That’s how it was done for generations.

Unfortunately in the past thirty years or so, we have become more of a throwaway culture. Especially in the US, where people just buy cheap shoes and throw them away. This left cobblers without business and a lot of those grandfathers ended up selling their shops.
And if you don’t have a mentor showing you how to do it correctly you end up with a lot of folks not doing a great job.

How do you become a cobbler?

It has gotten to a point where there are not many schools that teach how to be a shoe cobbler, so what it has come down to is that if you want to become one, you have to take it upon yourself to find a good shoe cobbler and ask them if you can shadow them for a while.

Heath and I, that’s how we got into it back in 2014, we had been bringing business to a Russian cobbler and we used to take our stuff to him and he told us that he was gonna retire and asked if we wanted to buy the business. We shadowed him for a while. I also knew about a cobbler in Nashville and we hired him to come to show us the trade for about three months.

In today’s world, in order to learn the trade, you either have to learn from them in your spare time or ask for an apprenticeship.

How is the cobbler profession viewed in the US today? 

A lot of young people don’t know what a cobbler does. And the people that do, see it as far down the ladder. Most people think of cobbler shops as run down and dirty and some are. It is viewed as minimal work, with low pay.

How did you becoming YouTube cobblers change your business?

Heath and I get a lot of our business from YouTube, 99% is from online, all over the US and the globe that want to mail the shoes.

What does a day in the life of a cobbler look like?

We try to work by category and by the process. So, for example, we will take an entire row of dress shoes, and one person will take the shoe apart, pull out the old cork, and then the other person will put in a new cork, then stitch the sole. Often, we have to put on new welts, which takes a lot of time because we don’t have a welting machine, so we are doing it by hand. It is a time-consuming process.

What tools do you use?

The cool thing about shoe cobbling is that most of the tools we are using are the ones that have been used for thirty, forty years. We have sanding machines, to sand off the edges of the soles, we have grinders, and a lot of the hand tools that we use have been used for sixty years. It is a trade where you are using things people have been using for decades.

Who are the people that send their shoes to you?

Generally, the people who resole are usually higher income because our prices are higher. We get a lot of guys with dress shoes or work boots that buy them for $300 or $400 and want to keep them.

How many times can you resole a Blake stitch shoe?

You can do it depending on how close the stitch density is, the higher the density, the better. I would say up to 3 times.

The art of repair is on the rise again

The art of cobbling is essential to maintaining your shoes and to our mission of making long-lasting products. It is people like Trent and Tony who should inspire you to repair the components of your shoes that need fixing rather than replacing them. With their knowledge and YouTube as their platform, they are breathing new life into the trade by showing cobbling techniques, recrafts, and doing reviews. An otherwise diminishing art is being used and passed down in these family businesses, an art that will make sure you can pass down the items you enjoy to the ones you love, for years to come.

Have you taken your Beckett Simonon shoes in for repair or re-crafting? Comment below andtag your pictures with @beckettsimonon on Instagram.

 

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