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Cobblers' footprint shrinks

Published April 11, 2007


WALDOBORO, Maine - With more Americans planting their feet in throwaway shoes and athletic footwear, the neighborhood shoe-repair shop might seem like a relic from the past and a candidate for extinction.

But don't tell that to Bill Wheeler. He entered the business four months ago at age 56, pumping new life into a collection of machines and hand tools that he purchased through eBay from a defunct repair shop.

The opening of Coastal Cobbler, sandwiched between an appliance business and a cellular phone office, means Waldoboro's 5,000 residents no longer have to travel 35 miles to Brunswick or 50 miles to Lewiston for shoe repairs.

It also bucks a decadeslong decline in the number of repair shops. While cities still support multiple repair shops, many towns have none.

The number of cobblers has dropped from roughly 100,000 during the Great Depression to about 7,000 today, according to the Shoe Service Institute of America.

And the trend continues.

For every repair shop that opens, two or three are closing their doors, but the rate of attrition appears to be slowing, said Jim McFarland, who serves on the board of SSIA, an industry trade group staffed by volunteers.

"By 2020, unless we see a radical change, there will be around 5,000 or 6,000 shops," said McFarland, who operates a shop in Lakeland.

The cause of the decline is plain to see.

Last year's average retail price of a dress shoe - men's, women's and children's - was $32.59, according to the NPD Group Inc., a market research company in Port Washington, N.Y. Dress casual shoes were even cheaper, averaging $30.46 a pair.

That's considerably less than the $40 to $45 that most shops charge to put on a set of half soles and heels.

Also, dressier shoes make up a dwindling percentage of footwear sales. Last year, dress and dress casual shoe sales were $10.7-billion, roughly half of what Americans paid for sneakers and other athletic footwear.

With new shoe repair machinery prohibitively expensive, Wheeler decided to shop on the Internet but found the array of offerings costly and confusing. He hit paydirt when he spotted a complete shop outside Pittsburgh for sale on eBay after its owner died and none of his four sons followed him into the business. Wheeler flew to Pittsburgh, loaded the machines into a rented van and hauled them home to learn how to operate them.

Many of those who remain in the shoe-repair business are adapting.

Robert DiRinaldo, who turns 75 April 28 and is hailed as a legend in the industry, helped pioneer techniques for repairing shoes.

These days, DiRinaldo keeps busy repairing shoes at DiRinaldo's Shoe Service in Trafford, Pa., and traveling the country to share with other cobblers his techniques at seminars on "how to repair the unrepairable."

Even though many of today's shoes are bonded rather than stitched, almost all can be repaired. "If the shoe repair man is up to date on his bonding techniques, he can fix it," McFarland said.

[Last modified April 11, 2007, 01:56:50]

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