Lavender is not the color normally associated with shoe repair. Brown, as in dirt brown, or black, as in bootblack, perhaps, but never lavender.
Somehow, it's tough to picture the hard-working immigrant shoemaker, surrounded by scraps of leather and rubber soles and ceiling-high stacks of seemingly abandoned shoes, toiling at a lavender machine.
But for the new wave of instant shoe repair shops, lavender will do just fine, thanks. Put those new, dust-free machines right up front, get matching T-shirts for the help, embellish with slate-gray carpeting and mirrors, and then, if the location is good enough, watch the customers pour in.
Across Los Angeles, that's the formula that is reviving the moribund shoe repair business. Using concepts and machinery imported from Europe, a group of entrepreneurs--many with no previous experience in shoe repair--are setting up bright new shops in shopping malls and office towers, and fixing shoes while customers wait and watch. They may not be Old World craftsmen, but they are attuned to the requirements of a big-city service business.
"It's fast, it's clean, it's high tech," says Jerry Guederian as he stands in front of a glistening row of lavender buffers, trimmers and stitchers in his 10-day-old Shoe Lab shop in Westwood Village. "This is the future of shoe repair."
Guederian, a native of Lebanon who studied shoe design in Italy, says the shop is fixing about 60 pairs of shoes a day and reached the break-even point after just four days of operation. He plans to have a dozen similar stores in the Los Angeles area by the end of 1990.
Guederian faces plenty of competition. Scott Adler, whose previous venture was a chain of private mail centers, has opened 12 Shoe Wiz outlets, with three in the downtown area alone. Roger Ehrlich graduated from the instant photo business to Shoe Doctor, which has four Southland stores. And Rick VanSant, a Canadian who made his first career narrowing ties, is now president of Moneysworth & Best, a franchised shoe repair chain that claims to be the biggest in North America and plans to open its first L.A. store in Manhattan Village next month.
"Shoe repair is an industry that's underdeveloped, and a lot of people have seen that," VanSant says. The Los Angeles area has the potential for about 100 instant shoe repair outlets, Adler believes.
Instant shoe repair will not replace the estimated 14,000 traditional shoe repair shops in operation across the country. The Italian and Greek immigrants who once dominated the venerable mom-and-pop businesses are giving way to Koreans, Armenians and other more recent arrivals, but the tradition of proud craftsmanship remains, and the neighborhood cobbler will continue to provide shoe services that in some cases cannot be matched by the new franchise operations.
In fact, the instant shops aim as much to create new markets for shoe repair and bring in first-time customers as to compete with existing enterprises, many of which offer instant service. "The traditional shops look at the instant shops as hurting their business, but others think (the new stores) are exposing people to shoe repair who wouldn't otherwise think of it," says Mitchell Lebovic, editor of the trade magazine Shoe Service. "Someone is much more likely to get their shoes fixed if they don't have to wait."
Ehrlich of Shoe Doctor adds: "We are an impulse retailer. Thirty percent of our customers are people who walk by and had no intention, when they got up that morning, of getting their shoes fixed." The high-profile presence in busy malls and transit centers thus serves an important pedagogic function, he says.
"There's a whole generation of young people whose parents didn't tell them they could or should get their shoes fixed," Ehrlich continues. "There's a massive amount of available market to build upon."
Michele Flicker of Santa Monica, who was getting her shoes fixed at Shoe Lab, says she used to give her shoes to her mother when they needed fixing, and she would take them to a traditional shop. She's a big fan of the new concept. "It's nice here--you can sit and wait, and it's not like you're sitting in a factory."
Some traditional shoe makers resent the newcomers, saying they are limited to the simplest repairs and often skimp on quality for the sake of speed. A San Gabriel shoemaker sneered at the idea that shoes could be rebuilt in a few minutes and said it takes hours of skilled labor to do a proper job.
Much of what the instant shops do involves basic repairs such as fixing heels and putting on special protective soles and insoles. The new equipment, most of which is imported from Holland, Belgium and West Germany, includes automatic nailers, pneumatic presses for gluing on soles and high-speed belt sanders and trimmers for cutting and buffing.