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Tampa Bay cobblers step to sweet tune amid recession

TAMPA

His craft once took years to master and each job a week to complete. But these days, cobbler Ron Johnson can repair your shoes while you eat at Sbarro in the food court.

The industry has changed since Johnson, owner of Shoe Doctors in the University Mall, was an apprentice. An aging customer base and cheaper shoes has led to a steady decline in the shoe repair business nationwide.

But business has heated up in recent months. Despite thinning crowds in the mall and the economy sliding into a deep recession, his shop is seeing a minor boom.

Sales are up 50 percent. Now he handles about 40 customers a day, more on weekends.

"When everyone is, at best, staying even, an established 20-year-old business has grown," Johnson says.

It's a simple dynamic. When people don't have enough money to buy a new pair of $100 loafers, they spend $40 to repair the ones they have.

"People say they're like new, but they're better than new. They're already broken in," he says.

Other area cobblers are seeing a surge in business. Ederney Arismendis runs Reina Shoe Repair with his brother in downtown Tampa, where traffic began to increase in September. He says sales are up 40 percent.

"We're very busy," he says.

Across the bay in St. Petersburg, Holmes Shoe Repair has seen a smaller, but appreciable jump in business, despite a mistake in the Yellow Pages.

"We'd be busier, but they have us listed under shoe sales instead of shoe repair," says Dawn Duncan, who runs the shop with her husband.

Local cobblers aren't alone. Nationwide, shoe repair shops are experiencing a revival.

"This is like back in the '70s," says Jim McFarland, a spokesman for the Shoe Service Institute of America. "About 95 percent (of cobblers) have seen a big difference since November."

But a lot has changed for cobblers since the 1970s.

McFarland, who runs a shoe repair shop in Lakeland, now has an Auto-Soler, which costs between $2,000 and $5,000 and can drive three nails a second. He uses belt sanders that are exponentially faster than the old rotary ones.

The only problem: It's hard to find experienced people willing to do the work, McFarland says.

Johnson has a similar problem. He apprenticed under his father, who would demand perfection on each repaired shoe. He learned how to drive nails with a hammer and to make sure each stitch was exactly even.

Now he says he has to bring people in and train them within months instead of years. It's hard to hold on to good people because the work is hard and the pay is low.

And he has noticed a change in the type of shoes people are bringing in. On Mondays, young people bring their Timberland and Lugz boots to the mall to be cleaned after a hard weekend of partying in Ybor, he says.

Duncan has seen a slow evolution in the clientele at her downtown St. Petersburg store. Over the past five years it has shifted from a seasonal crowd, almost exclusively comprised of aging snowbirds, to a year-round, mixed bag of retirees and young professionals.

The biggest change has come in the past year, she says.

"There was a decline in people knowing (about shoe repair)," she says. "Now there's an awareness again."

In Tampa, Arismendis' shop continues to cater mostly to lawyers and police officers. They still bring in Allen Edmunds for repairs, and he hasn't seen too many more young people coming in.

He says women will bring in bags of high heels, and he sees a bump from Gasparilla every year. He grabs a big pair of boots off a wall lined with plastic bags containing newly repaired shoes. He says owners are paying more than $100 to have their pirate footwear repaired.

Still, the number of cobblers is declining. It seems like one shop closes every year, Johnson says.

But the future looks bright for the shops that survive.

"The most important thing is the increase in young people," McFarland says. "They'll save cobblers from becoming extinct."

Joshua Neiderer can be reached at jneiderer@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3374.

Tampa Bay cobblers step to sweet tune amid recession 03/02/09 [Last modified: Monday, March 2, 2009 11:54pm]
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