PORT RICHEY — An actor playing Darth Vader in a theme park extravaganza was too short to be menacing. At a little over 6 feet tall, he wasn't quite intimidating enough. So, he called the owners of Ed's Shoe Repair to add three inches to his boots. When Vader was done wearing the boots for the day, they were put in a display case for Star Wars fans to admire.
Ed's Shoe Repair, located in the Ridge Road Center strip mall, has sewn a hot air balloon, resized clown shoes and repaired dragon boots for a man who dresses as Gene Simmons on Halloween. There are few things they can't fix.
Now owned and operated by the late Ed's son John Hnilica, the shop has been a mainstay in Port Richey for 33 years. But the Hnilica family's shoe repair roots go back even farther.
In 1949, Ed Hnilica opened the first iteration of the shop in Lombard, Ill. The World War II veteran attended shoe repair school after he got out of the service. Business slowed down in the winters, and Ed got inventive. He started selling new and used ice skates and put his sons to work at young ages. John was lacing and pairing skates and lugging them up and down the stairs by the time he was 6.
"I was born and raised in it," John, 54, said. "I learned my work ethic from my dad."
When his mother grew ill, Ed moved to Florida, leaving his son Dean in charge of the Illinois shop, which has since closed. Ed opened a new shop with the same name in Port Richey in 1980.
After a tour in the Navy, John joined his father at the shop. By 1989, Ed had retired and John took over. Ed died two years ago, but John strives to keep his father's spirit alive.
"If you've seen me, you've seen my dad," John said, standing in front of a black and white photo of Ed hanging up in the shop. Save for a beard and some horn-rimmed glasses, John is his spitting image. The similarities go beyond their likenesses. He and his father share the same sense of humor, John says.
"My dad was definitely a jokester, even in his 80s.
"He pretty much taught me everything," John added. "Always be open to new ideas, not only on the repair stuff but also on new products to sell. Making the customer happy, no matter what, is the most important thing that we can do."
The shop has a history of repairing luggage, handbags, jackets and zippers, along with some alterations work, but John added shoe sales to the repertoire. The store carries high-quality brands, including Irish Setter by Red Wing, American-made New Balance, Spring Step, Naot, Cobb Hill and Dunham Shoes. John also expanded to a Spring Hill location in 2005 called Shoe Comfort, staffed by his son, Joshua.
The front of the shop is lined with new shoes along slat walls. Handwritten thank-you letters from grateful customers are taped alongside photos. Customers stream in steadily. Several say they've been coming for longer than they can remember.
A window behind the counter reveals a workshop cluttered with shoe repair equipment. John's son Glenn can be seen repairing shoes across the workbench from seamstress Marie Paxton.
During the peak season, fall and winter, John says the shop repairs about 600 to 700 shoes a month.
His wife, Edy, works in the office. Another son, Stephen, who is presently walking from New Port Richey to Seattle for charity, handles the shop's social media profiles from his phone.
Glenn learned shoe repair from both his father and grandfather.
"I learned the same way they did," Glenn, 26, said. "They handed me a knife and a heel lifter and said, 'All right, tear this shoe apart.' And I've been doing it that way ever since."
Still, the world of shoe repair has changed a lot since Ed was at the helm of the business.
"With today's new materials, a lot of the stuff that he did works on some shoes, but not a lot of them," John said. "The materials are different than they were back then. So we've actually modified and changed with the times."
John developed a lot of his new techniques through trial and error. He also attends shoe repair conventions to learn tips and tricks from others in the field.
Business actually improved during the recession, he said, as people chose the cheaper option of repairing their shoes rather than buying new ones. Shoemakers nowadays are substituting superior materials like leather for lower-quality materials like vinyl, but keeping the prices the same, John says.
"It's never (been) more important to actually buy a quality pair and repair it, because it's actually cheaper in the long run," he said. "It's a better value than it ever was before."
Samantha Fuchs can be reached at (727) 869-6235 or [email protected]