The cobbler on the square

In an Inverness shop, worn heels are welcomed by a craftsman who wishes we didn't throw shoes away.

Published August 8, 2006

INVERNESS - John Millard's hands move quickly as he shapes a leather heel. He rotates the leather, his arms gliding in half circles as he carefully works through his latest repair.

Being here in the back room of John's Shoe Repair is like walking back in time to a day when the local cobbler was a fixture.

But people don't repair shoes anymore. They buy new ones instead. They don't wear wingtips or high-heeled pumps like they used to - in short, they don't always need craftsmen like John Millard.

He jokes that if someone walked in the door today and offered to buy his business, he would sell it.

He knows that probably won't happen.

"There isn't enough money in it," he said. "It's just too hard of a living; that's why you don't find shoe repair places like you used to.

"It isn't for lack of shoes, it's a lack of quality. We've gotten into a mode of throwing things away."

Inside the shop, supplies overflow. There are stitchers, finishers and Singer sewing machines, shelves of shoe polish and spools of bright thread.

Zippers hang on the wall near rolls of dyed lizard leather, vinyl and Birkenstock soling. A gleaming white New Balance shoe is drying with a new 2-inch orthopedic lift and a Dooney & Burke black purse needs its strap fixed, like a few suitcases on the floor.

There are stacks of shoes, lace-up black boots, belts, purses and directions on how to charge for refinishing a saddle.

"I keep a messy place," he said, "but I know where everything is at."

Black-and-white photographs from the early 1900s hang on the wall. It is his way of memorializing the Gundacker family who built this business so many years ago in Iowa.

Born in Iowa, he came to Florida after serving in the Air Force in Vietnam. He moving to Ruskin to work as a pipefitter on the railroad. When he went back to Iowa to see his high school sweetheart, Linda, who was getting a divorce, he made her his wife.

They stayed in Florida for five years before moving back to Iowa to raise their children.

In 1979, Millard and his wife saw a clothing and shoe store for sale that also had a shoe repair business. They had never repaired shoes before, but bought it anyway.

"I had to lie a lot until I learned how to do it," Millard said.

After 12 years in Iowa, Millard sold the retail portion of the company in Iowa and moved the shoe repair business and the family to Florida, ending up near Cocoa Beach.

In 2004, Millard moved the shoe repair machines to Inverness and opened a new shop on Courthouse Square.

It's not easy, running a throwback kind of business, but Millard is sticking with it.

"I don't see a lot of people hiring 60-year-olds," Millard said. "Although it irritates me sometimes, with some of the things I have to work on, I like working with my hands."

Dawn Reiss can be reached at 352 860-7303 or dreiss@sptimes.com.