Tuesday, July 07, 2009

The Last Cobbler? Mike Vallee Should Be History. So Why Is He Still Fixing Shoes?

As a cobbler, Mike Vallee, who operates a cobbler shop in Bristol, CT, is supposed to be extinct. In our throw-away society, we don't get our shoes repaired; we just buy a new pair at a giant shoe store. Right?

How come Mike doesn't know that? Shouldn't somebody tell him? I don't think so – and neither do his many clients, such as this smiling regular getting his tight shoes "blown out."

Mike Vallee is a cobbler, for God's sakes. God and his cobbler father put him on earth to heal, with deft and loving hands, wounded shoes. Using ancient skills handed down from the dawn of humanity, he saves shoes from the dumpster. Even shoes near fall-apart death, he restores to a healthy vigor and sheen.

Mike performs miracles with shoes and shoe-lovers. He says walk again and they do. For both, he heels. For both, he saves soles. (Sorry ... couldn't resist.)In a city with some rough edges, even a drive-by shooting can't stop him from doing his thing. That's a bullet hole you see in his sign.

We are the only animals that wear shoes. I spent a lot of time in Africa and saw all kinds of animals in the wild. I never saw an animal wearing shoes. Mike Vallee will surely attest that no antelope has ever came into his shop for a shoe fix. (What must horses think of those iron “horse shoes” that we force them to wear?)

However, all manner of humankind in Bristol and regions beyond troop into Mike Vallee's cobbler shop with tales of shoe woes. The mayor of Bristol, Art Ward, is a regular, as have been mayors before him. “I do Artie's shoes,” Mike said. City councilors also come in. They may be skilled politicians with talented tongues, but none can sweet-talk their shoes back into service.

Only Mike Vallee can do that and everybody in town, from the mayor to ordinary folk, knows it. They come humbly, hat in hand, spilling out with no little emotion their shoe issues. They know that Mike the cobbler is always in for them.

When they come in, their shoes are tired. They're tight. They squeak. The heel is worn. There is a hole in the sole. Any one of these can be like a dagger in the heart of someone who has worn a pair of shoes for years, loves them, and can't bear the thought of being without them.

For many of Mike Vallee's regulars, God forbid, buying a new pair in a shoe store is not an option. It's an emotional thing: the huge stores see shoes as just shoes; they insult shoes and shoe-lovers by their mass display and mass merchandising; shoes are like people, each pair unique and with its own personality; the shoe-store chains don't understand how important shoes are to people the way Mike Vallee does.

He knows that people identify with their shoes and that their style, brand, designer, price, and condition all proclaim who they are. Our shoes are us. If our shoes are not right, neither are we. And sometimes, as Mike Vallee sees day in and day out, people need to talk about their shoes.

In Mike Vallee's little cobbler shop, people can let out all their shoe troubles and hopes. They can't do that in a giant shoe store while being waited on by a bored, part-timer whose heart and mind are elsewhere. Mike is fully there. Having grown up with many of his customers, he knows them and their shoes, intimately. He's a trusted friend to both.

Sometimes people come in with a shoe emergency in which time is critical. A wedding is coming up and a mother wants to dance with her groom son wearing pumps that match her joy. A businessman has a big meeting with a potential client and wants to make sure that a delicate deal won't be done in by his shoes; they must reflect his ability to fulfill the contract. A factory worker -- Bristol has many -- must have shoes that enable him to be on his feet for long hours so that he will be able to support his family.
In Mike Vallee, such varied shoe needs find a sympathetic ear. He is decidedly NOT tough as shoe leather. He's also a bit of a dramatist who likes acting out with customers. He's like the cobbler in the famous Norman Rockwell cover (pictured here)fixing a doll's shoes for little girl. You can just see him doing exactly the same.

While chatting and exchanging stories, he tells people what has to be done. Sometimes, if it's a small job and the customer doesn't mind taking a seat, he does the fix then and there. While I was there, a regular came in complaining that his shoes were tight. Mike immediately “blew them out” while engaging in multiple ongoing conversations.

Within minutes, the customer was out the door wearing his now comfy shoes with a smile on his face and with a newly confident step. A steady stream of customers ask for and get this kind of quick, efficient shoe fix. They walk out in comfort, pride, and with a fresh new outlook on life.

Really? Really – as I would find out myself when I presented Mike Vallee my own shoe problem.

Mike's father started Vallee's Shoe Service in 1947. Mike got his start lugging a shoeshine kit around Brockton Plaza where he and a Greek kid hotly competed for customers. He learned early on that you can get a pretty good shine with a brush, but to get the lustre, you have to “pop the rag.”

When he was 10, he started working in his dad's cobbler shop, and he has been there ever since. Mike Vallee Sr. retired at 55 because of heart trouble. He had a major heart attack and underwent “five or six” bypasses, Mike says. Still, largely because of a female cardiologist from India, a “maestro in the field,” he lived another 20 years before passing away at 75 in 2000.

Mike Vallee has two brothers, one younger and one older. Both are cobblers. His older brother Joe runs Gulfgate Shoe Repair in Sarasota, Fla. Dave operates Dave's Shoe Repair in Rockville, CT. Both tried working in other fields, but always came back to the cobbler life.

Mike has a son and two daughters. His son Mike, 29, years ago “did some stitching” in the shop, but has shown little interest in carrying on the family cobbler tradition. He is an athlete who went to college on an athletic scholarship where he studied economics and political science.

“I didn't do sports,” Mike Vallee Sr. said. “I was always working.”

His two daughters have shown no interest in becoming cobblers. Mike completely understands. Cobbling is not a field that the female gender would naturally gravitate to. His younger daughter is a student at Central Connecticut College. His older daughter has just received a master's degree in education.

But for Mike Vallee, cobbling is all he knows and he has no desire to do anything else. He loves the work. He loves having all his old friends coming in to get their shoes fixed and, especially, the comaraderie that goes with it. In Mike's shop, it's all first names and nicknames and never-ending stories and joshing. He is shown here with shoe forms.

But what if work dries up in a trade that is widely seen as dying? What will he do then? Mike does not seem the least bit worried. Asked if business is good enough for him to pay the bills and keep going, he will only say, “I make a living.”

But judging from the stream of customers I saw and a little research into the state of the cobbler business today, I would venture to say that Mike Vallee is in no danger of going out of business. His business is probably healthier today than it has been in recent years.

Jim McFarland, owner of a cobbler shop in Lakeland, Fla, and a spokesman for the Shoe Service Institure of America, says cobbler shops are seeing a surge in business. He is a third-generation cobbler. He says that since November, many shoe-repair shops have seen a 25% to 30% growth in business.

In a depression like this – excuse me, recession – it makes sense. Instead of buying new shoes, more people are getting their shoes repaired to save money. McFarland says that where the typical shoe-repair customer has been age 50 and up, recent new customers have been much younger.

“We're starting to see some younger people, 20 or 30-year-olds, coming into the stores,” McFarland said. “Before this recession started, we didn't see younger people.” Indeed, the little hall of his small shoe-repair shop is piled high with reheeled stilettos, resoled boots, and polished Oxfords.

While the shoe-repair business is up, the sales of new shoes are down 3.2% in the 12 months that ended in November, according to NPD Group, Inc., a market research firm. This does not mean that the shoe-repair has become a new growth industry. At one time there were 120,000 shoe-repair shops in the U.S. Today, there are about 7,000. As with Mike Vallee, the children of cobblers are little inclined to learn the trade from their fathers or to take it up themselves.

Another reason the ranks of cobblers have thinned is that this is not a trade that is learned overnight. It can take up to four years to learn the trade. Few young people are willing to put that much time into getting qualified. On top of that, is the need to invest in pricey equipment. A finishing machine with trimmers, sanding belts, and buffers can cost more than $20,000.

In the meantime, like everybody else who comes to Mike Vallee's cobbler shop, I arrive with a shoe problem. “Mike, as a friend of a friend,” I said to him, “could you fix these loafers? They're Eccos, the best shoes I ever had in my whole life. I paid over a hundred bucks for them at a Bostonian store six years ago and look at them. The braid is pulling apart. Something is going on with the sole. They're all scuffed up. My wife thinks I need new shoes.”

He asked me to take off my shoes. I did so. Placing them on the counter, I said, “Now I suppose you are going to look at my shoes and be able to tell my whole life history.”

He took one of the shoes and studied it. “Not quite,” he said. “But I can tell that you are a man who likes his comfort and these shoes are dry. They have never met polish.”

“That's it?,” I said, relieved.

“Well, let me ask the shoe.” He put one shoe to his ear and, periodically nodding, made out like he was getting an earful.

“I don't think everybody needs to hear what a bad person I have been. Can you help me?,” I asked.

“I can't do much with the hole in the sole because it is rubber. But let me see what I can do.”

Then, while chatting up old-friend customers sitting in the shop and coming and going through the door, he restitched my shoes right on the counter. The photo shows him doing the restitching by hand. Then he applied leather treatment and polish. He put my shoes to a buffing machine. It took him about 15 minutes.

He handed the shoes to me. “I gave the sole a quick fix, a patch job,” he said. “Can't really do anything more with rubber soles.”

“They look like new,” I said. The new stitches blended in perfectly. Gone was the dried-up, tired, scuffed-up look. It was replaced by a soft leathery sheen that made my old shoes seem reborn. “How did you do that?”

He smiled.

I put my 6-year-old shoes on. They felt heavenly. “How much do I owe you?”

“On the house.”

I walked out of Mike Vallee's cobbler shop happy. My “new” shoes made me feel like a new man. Now I know what Mike Vallee's regulars know. There's nothing like having a personal shoe makeover by a guy who knows exactly what it takes to make your shoes –- and you -- happy.

Here is one happy customer, me, showing off his "new" shoes with Mike Vallee, cobbler artiste. Mike: I thank you. My shoes thank you.
So long and keep moving

Amazon  E-Books by George Pollock

"State Kid: Hero of Literacy" is fiction based on his  real-life experiences  growing up in foster homes; "Last Laughs," is the true story of how five foster kids (he and four younger siblings) found their way in life and each other. "Killers: Surprises in a Maximum Security Prison," is the story of the author being locked up for 23 hours with killers in a maximum security prison;  "I, Cadaver" is about the author's postmortem adventures and mischief in the anatomy lab at UMass Medical School. “A Beautiful Story” demonstrates the art and process of creative writing as a 16-year-old boy goes all out to write a story good enough to get him into an exclusive college -- on full scholarship; and "A Long, Happy, Healthy Life," which lays out what to do (and not do) to live the title every single day.

  For the Nook:

A Beautiful Story
A Long, Happy, Healthy Life
I, Cadaver
State Kid
Unlove Story

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