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Shoe Repair Business Hits Rough Patch

Trades: While sales are rising, local cobblers try to mend holes left by a booming economy.


Shoe sales are rising faster than stock prices during this booming economy. But the good times aren't great for the shoe repair business.

That's because fewer people bother to get that hole in their sole patched when they have dollars in their pocket and extra pressure to follow fashion trends.

Mark Builder, manager of Red Wing Shoe and Repair in Oxnard, which sells work shoes and boots, said his shoe repair business dips when sales of new shoes soar. And these days retail is flying high.

"People are spending money and they think for $150 they can get a new pair of shoes," he said. "They don't want to sink $40 into an old pair."

He has managed to stay afloat, Builder said, because his services include sales of new shoes. Also, Red Wing caters to a clientele that does not slavishly follow fashion trends, he said.

The construction workers, welders, hikers and patrol officers who buy the shoes may shell out a hefty sum up front but they get comfort and durability in return, Builder said. They are more likely to repair the shoes instead of replacing them when they begin to wear, he said.

"The younger crowd is taught to think that style is more important than function," he said. Platform shoes popular with teens and young women "are not going to be repaired because they are made to be expendable."

Those thick soles pose another problem for cobblers, according to Jack Kardyan, owner of Benton Shoe Repair in Simi Valley. Even if the shoe is expensive, the sole is so thick it takes years to wear out.

So repairing them is not even considered.

"Those tiny rubber heels from the 1980s wouldn't last very long, and we were always replacing them. Then the style changed to big heels and the distance along the bottom is so wide it really lasts," he said.

Keri Quinn, assistant manager for Lady Footlocker at Pacific View Mall in Ventura, said the athletic shoes in her store are made to last between four and six months. And, she added, she would never consider resoling a pair of her own shoes.

"I try to buy a new pair every three months," she said.

Ken Myers, owner of K & J Shoe Repair in Ventura, said he believes the industry's downturn is due to too many shoes being made inexpensively abroad.

"Nothing is made here--it's all cheap shoes from China or Brazil, and they are not worth repairing," he said. "You wear them until they wear out."

But for the niche of shoe buyers who purchase expensive shoes--such as lawyers and other professionals--Myers said the strong economy may be a blessing in disguise.

"Lawyers and doctors buy good leather shoes that they get repaired," he said.

Although owners of small shoe-repair shops can earn upward of $70,000 in a good year, operators say, many average no more than $55,000. And even that is getting harder to achieve, some cobblers say.

Young Lee, who with her husband owns Lee's Shoe Repair in Ventura, said their business gets worse every year.

"Shoe repair is dying because young people buy nice shoes to match with their clothing, and when the clothing is out of style they don't need the shoes," she said.

To deal with the crunch, Lee expanded the couple's shop to include clothing alterations, such as shortening the hem of pants. "The shoe repair business is not great, but the clothing business is growing," she said.

Juan Martinez, 55, a Red Wing cobbler for 14 years, works in a back shop that looks like a cross between a manufacturing plant and an artist's studio. Standing in front of large shelves filled with brown, black, white and tan soles of every size, he carefully works on an antique stitching machine to repair a pair of work boots.

It takes about 90 minutes to resole one pair of shoes, and he usually gets through about 10 pairs a day.

On a recent afternoon nearly every shoe in front of Martinez was a beat-up work boot, like a construction worker might wear. Such shoes can be pricey, and workers expect to get a lot of wear from them, he said.

"When people buy shoes that are over $100 they will often try to repair them," said Martinez, holding a brown pair that others might have tossed into the garbage long ago.

Some get attached to their old shoes and don't care what they look like. Others loathe even the thought of stepping into a mall to shop for a new pair. So they hand them over to someone such as Martinez, who has labored over thousands of soles over 25 years.

Martinez, who earns $24,000 a year, said he is lucky to have his job, because it is hard to find work in the dying cobbler trade.

"It's a very hard question what I would do if without this job. I really don't know," he said with a shrug.

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