Opportunity knocked in an unlikely way for 39-year-old Rick Salvatore. Sixteen years ago, he answered a small help-wanted notice at an unemployment office for a counter clerk at a shoe repair shop. Two years later, Salvatore was offered the chance to buy the shop after the proprietor suffered a heart attack. As owner of American Shoe Repairing, Salvatore caters to and watches the people of downtown from his shop on Broadway. Somewhere between 85 to 120 people come in the shop daily, he estimates, and they bring as little as one ailing shoe to as many as a shopping bag full of them. While his clientele consists mostly of business people, he has also served the likes of Red Skelton and Redd Foxx, and knows firsthand the size of basketball player Bill Walton's feet. Salvatore lives in Chula Vista with his wife and two daughters, having moved away from his close-knit Italian family in New Jersey in 1971. Times staff writer Kathie Bozanich interviewed Salvatore and Barbara Martin photographed him.
I could write a book on the things that I've seen while working downtown the last 16 years. Being on Broadway, everyone in town passes by. There's a lot of activity going on all the time.
When I first got here (in 1971), it wasn't anywhere near this nice. There used to be a lot of massage parlors, and there was a go-go place next door to the shop. There's been a lot of change, with all the restoration of the Gaslamp district, Horton Plaza being built, and all the high-rises.
Our shop has survived all this because we're a service. We withstand depressions, recessions, you name it. If the economy's good, our business gets a little slower. When the economy's bad, the better for our business. It's cheaper to repair your shoes than to go out and buy new ones.
My reputation carries me, just word of mouth. People coming in the store, they recognize me and ask for me. I work six days a week. They walk in the door and the first thing they see is me. I haven't had a vacation in almost five years, not one week off.
I look for it. That's my job. I look at people's shoes, listen to see if a person's heels are clacking. I tease the gals that come in. I tease them, "What did you do, chew on these heels? Did the dog chew on them?" Their heels are worn halfway up to the back of the shoe, and they tell me they got stuck between the cracks in the street or a grate or something. Some are so scuffed up you'd think they had been playing football in them over the weekend.
I always had a dream. I wanted to own a restaurant because I enjoyed cooking. When I started working here, I thought to myself, "Well, this is a start, and when I make enough money I'll go elsewhere." I would go work in a restaurant, or try to own part of one. But I've been fortunate, and have found myself a place to stay, build a future, and be successful.
I grew up in this little Italian neighborhood where everyone lived within a block of each other and everyone knew everyone else's business. Even today, my sister lives upstairs with her husband and her two kids, my mother lives in the middle, and my brother lives on the bottom floor. There isn't a thing that goes on in that house that my mother doesn't know about, and that's why I'm glad that I'm 3,000 miles away.
My father died when I was 1 1/2 years old, and my mom never remarried. She wore black for at least 15 years. I used to tell her, "Mom, you can't wear black anymore. You can't do that." But she never dated anyone else. Her thing in life was to take care of her three children. She was a seamstress in the garment district in New York City, doing piece work.
My brother and sister both quit high school when they were 16, and they both worked. I was the only one who graduated from high school in my family. That was a big thing. There was something in my mind that I knew that I had to go to school. I didn't want to be like them.