Need a little bit of sole? St. Petersburg cobblers will set you right

Earl Duncan polishes boots at Holmes Shoe Repair, which has operated in St. Petersburg since 1946 and has gained new customers.

MELISSA LYTTLE | Times

Earl Duncan polishes boots at Holmes Shoe Repair, which has operated in St. Petersburg since 1946 and has gained new customers.

ST. PETERSBURG

Tony Pemble was looking for a job, but he knew where to find "newer" shoes.

The out-of-work accountant walked into Hutson Shoe and Leather Repair, 2915 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. N, holding black flip-flops. He wore a crisp white dress shirt, trousers and a sharp, patterned tie. At the counter, Pemble slipped off the worn tasseled leather dress shoes on his feet, replacing them with the sandals.

Owner Jung Kang took the battered shoes that were in need of new soles and a good polishing. The price for a second life: $44.94, cash only.

This wasn't the first time Pemble had visited his neighborhood cobbler, but he said more than ever, it makes thrifty sense.

"Six months ago or a year ago, before the market crashed, I might have been going out looking for a new pair," said Pemble, 43. "But in this market, I'm going to get it fixed."

Pemble is not alone. In a time when everyone seems to be looking for ways to stretch dollars, local cobblers, who represent a dying craft, say business is on the upswing. The few who are still around are sometimes doing better than usual.

Downtown, a sign at Holmes Shoe Repair at 17 Sixth St. N reads: "We give your shoes new life." Owner Earl Duncan bought the business from his stepfather in 1983, and it has never been short for customers. Now, it's the best of times.

Before the economic slump, Duncan, 46, closed the shop on Wednesdays and weekends so he could catch up on orders. He recalls his childhood when there were five or six shoe repair stores around. Now he's the sole cobbler downtown.

Duncan's clientele consists of downtown workers and snowbirds, but also a newer, smaller segment who are using his services for the first time, he said.

"We can tell some of these shoes are being brought out from the back of the closet," said Duncan's wife and business partner, Dawn, 45.

At Tyrone Square Mall, Moo Kim, who has run Heel Sew Quik shoe repair for a decade, said he has also noticed an increase in business. Kim said customers stop in to see whether they can get another season out of shoes before plunking down money for a new pair.

Even the last wholesaler catering to shoe repair stores in the state has noticed the trend. Lee Efronson, president of Miami Leather Co., said his sales have increased 25 to 40 percent in the past five months, compared to the same period last year.

"It's dramatic," said Efronson, who also sells through the Southeast and Caribbean. "Specifically, our shoelace business is through the roof. It's indicative of the times."

It's not easy for a shoemaker to get rich. Most services range from a few dollars for a shoe shine to about $70 for replacing thick leather soles on a pair of boots.

In what Efronson calls a Catch-22, the battered world economy has hurt them, too. The prices of oil-based rubber, synthetic foams and adhesives have spiked.

Most cobblers also specialize in orthopedic shoes that are pricier. Kang also repairs leather, from handbags to gun holsters and suitcases.

Although the shop has been open for 50 years, Kang has owned the business for eight years. He said he hasn't seen an increase in shoe repair sales, but has noticed that some people seem to be delaying their repairs. One thing is certain: He doesn't worry about job security.

Luis Perez can be reached at 727-892-2271 or Lperez@sptimes.com.

Need a little bit of sole? St. Petersburg cobblers will set you right 02/20/09 [Last modified: Friday, February 20, 2009 11:20am]

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