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Dr. Shoe can fix your heels and soles

Mark Jones is one of only two full-time cobblers in the county.

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 16, 2003

CRYSTAL RIVER -- Tucked away in the middle of a small, aging strip mall on State Road 44 in Crystal River, Mark Jones' business is easy to overlook. Aside from a worn and fading sign, there really isn't much to draw the attention of passers-by.

But those folks who need Jones' services know exactly where to find him. When the heel of their favorite pair of cowboy boots starts pulling away, or one of the straps break on those nice pumps they bought in New York, or those comfortable loafers they've been wearing for years need new insoles, people know this is the guy who can deliver.

"I'd guess you'd say we're a word-of-mouth kind of place," offered the affable, outgoing owner of Dr. Shoe. "When you've been around a while people seek you out. That's pretty much the way it's always been for me."

As one of only two full-time cobblers left in Citrus County, Jones admits he pretty much has a lock on the local shoe repair business. It's an honor that doesn't make him all that happy. After all, he says, his line of business is just one more that seems to be fading with the passage of time.

"It used to be that people would pay more to get good quality shoes," said the 40-year-old Jones. "Now everyone seems to want what's cheapest, and when they wear out or break, that's it -- they're in the trash. It's easier and a lot cheaper to go out and buy another pair for what it would cost to fix them."

Nonetheless, for the man who has devoted most of his adult life to the craft of repairing footwear, it's a mostly enjoyble line of work. He likes the daily contact with his customers, but mostly, he enjoys being his own boss.

"I feel I have a real talent for this," said Jones. "It's probably not real exciting to people who don't probably understand it, but there's a certain amount of challenge to it. For me, the joy is seeing people leave here happy that they came to me."

A Clearwater native, Jones learned the trade as a teen working in a friend's shoe repair shop. After moving to Citrus County in 1991, he operated a franchise shoe repair shop at Crystal River Mall for about three years before spiraling rent increases forced him to move to his more affordable present location.

With occasional help from his wife, Gayle, and part-time employee Don Zajac, Jones spends his days doing a variety of cobbling tasks, from stitching new soles to repairing and refinishing leather uppers. He estimates his average repair brings in about $7.

Although Jones admits he loves living in the area, running a small business in a mostly rural community has its downside: He figures he earns about half what he would in an urban setting, where he could easily fetch $4 to $6 more for a complete resoling.

With the ever-rising cost of materials and supplies, he is pinched to bare minimum on every job.

"Every year the margin seems to get tighter," said Jones. "I don't want to raise prices and take the chance of losing customers. It's hard enough to keep them as it is."

Still, Jones says his integrity can never be beholden to earning a fast dollar.

"I believe in being honest with my customers," he said. "If they come in wanting new heels on a pair of shoes they bought at Wal-Mart for 10 or 12 bucks, I'm going to tell them that they're not worth fixing."

Jones sees a less than bright future for Citrus County small-business owners like himself. In the past few years, he has watched a number of small businesses wither and die. He points out, as an example, Helton's Hardware store up the street, which is closing after 25 years in business.

"You're torn between progress and having things remain the same," he said. "I've always gone to those guys because they were a lot like me. You can probably get the same stuff at Home Depot, but it's not the same. Small businesses are what built this community. I hate to see us lose all of that."

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