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Cobbler Stays a Step Ahead of the Hip

Displaced twice in five years by upscale developments, Pasquale Fabrizio remains true to his traditional craft.

September 07, 2004|Lisa Richardson | Times Staff Writer

In what can loosely be called "shoe circles," Pasquale Fabrizio is a minor deity.

Not only can he take the squeak out of a pair of boots, he can put the squeak back in. He can dye a favorite pair of shoes cream for a wedding day, then return them to a pristine black.

When Dorothy's ruby slippers from "The Wizard of Oz" needed a touch-up, the Smithsonian Institution sent them to Fabrizio. In an armored car.

Shoe lovers of every age, race and income travel unfamiliar swaths of Los Angeles to see the master cobbler.

It should be a winning business formula.

Yet it is hard to imagine that a more successful craftsman, who has struggled like Fabrizio, has to keep his doors open.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday September 10, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 81 words Type of Material: Correction
Ruby slippers -- A photo caption with an article in Tuesday's California section about cobbler Pasquale Fabrizio said he was examining an exact replica of Dorothy's shoe from "The Wizard of Oz." Some details of the shoe in the photo differ from the originals. The caption also said the Smithsonian Institution hired Fabrizio to repair the original pair. He was hired to touch up one of the original pairs. More than one pair existed, but the exact number is not known.

Twice in the last five years, waves of upscale development between Park La Brea and the edge of the Miracle Mile have replaced Pasquale Shoe Repair with the trendier, the hipper and the more lucrative.

A simple cobbler has become an uncanny bellwether of gentrification.

"It's like we'd have a stay of execution -- things would be going OK -- then we'd have to leave and start all over again," Fabrizio said.

Where Fabrizio started, on 3rd Street in the Park La Brea Plaza, stand the regal Palazzo apartments, with rents as high as their penthouses.

At Wilshire Boulevard and Detroit Street, in the Miracle Mile, luxury apartments and shops are rising where his second store stood.

With each move, Fabrizio's business has stumbled.

Now at the shop's third location, on San Vicente Boulevard near Hauser Boulevard, Fabrizio and his wife, Lina, wonder whether their following will follow them once again.

Pasquale, 45, is artistic, a perfectionist with a soft touch for hard-luck cases. Lina is practical, easygoing, with a head for business and a memory like a Palm Pilot.

He fell for her when he saw her going to work at a bank in Montreal, 21 years ago.

"When I saw her, I knew right away. That was it," Fabrizio said, slicing his hand sideways through the air.

Lina trusted Pasquale's dreams enough to abandon a $450-a-month mortgage in Montreal and pack the boys, Marco and Ricardo, and head west with him in 1994.

Fabrizio took over the repair side of a business that his uncle, Pasquale DiFabrizio, had made famous by crafting custom shoes for the likes of Cary Grant, Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra.

By 1994, recession had taken a toll on the old-time craft stores of 3rd Street. But then a wave of new residents, many of them fleeing the damage of the 1992 riots, crossed west over La Brea and discovered the abundant 1920s Spanish-style houses in the shop's neighborhood. The Fairfax-Miracle Mile area became a magnet for home buyers, hip restaurants and trendy boutiques.

"What I think should have been the nail in the coffin turned out to be exactly opposite," said Stephen Kramer, president of the Miracle Mile Chamber of Commerce.

While Pasquale and Lina set about fixing the low-heeled Naturalizers of seniors who tap-danced at the community center a few doors down, Hollywood brought in some special jobs.

When the costume designer for "The Green Mile" needed the squeak taken out of a pair of boots for one scene, then put back for the next, Fabrizio delivered.

When actor Will Smith complained that his feet ached after hours of boxing in preparation to shoot "Ali," Fabrizio went to watch Smith box. The actor was not floating like a butterfly, Fabrizio concluded; he was supinating.

"We reduced the amount of support in the boots. That way his feet would still roll out, but he wouldn't feel it," Fabrizio explained. Using Muhammad Ali's original Everlasts as a model, he quickly fashioned eight pairs of custom boots for Smith.

Then came the letter. Mega-developer Alan Casden had bought the Park La Brea Plaza, where his shop was located. He gave Fabrizio 30 days to vacate.

"See, I didn't tell Lina there was no lease for the business," Fabrizio said. "I mean, nobody -- nobody -- buys a business that has only a month-to-month lease."

Panicked, Fabrizio searched the area south of 3rd Street.

"I was a man with a family to feed and I was questioning myself, beating myself up endlessly," Fabrizio said.

With 10 days left to vacate, he found their second site on Wilshire Boulevard, one block west of La Brea.

Old customers had no idea where the shop had gone. Business withered.

"Then I said: I started with nothing and I'll end with nothing," Fabrizio said. "I work hard; I'm fair. I'll do the best I can. If that's the way it's going to be, then God has plans for me.

"You know what? The next week was a little better. And then the next. Not all at once, but in increments."

At first, customers brought in their well-loved loafers, beat-up brogans, sandals and thongs. Then the Fabrizios started seeing a suspicious amount of toe cleavage. Manolo Blahniks, sexy Zanottis and funky Arlene C's. Single people's shoes. The Fabrizios knew what it meant. Courtyards and concierges would be arriving right behind them.

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