Saving shoes one sole at a time

The Crispins of Capitol Hill may not be saints, but they certainly can fix your shoes. Crispins - its the European term for cobbler - came from Saint Crispin, a cobbler who became the patron saint of cobblers. And Broadway Shoe Repair can fix what ails your sole.

"The number one question we get from customers is, can you fix this?" said Broadway Shoe Repair owner Ward Luhman. Most of the time, they can. And they repair things you might not think of, such as corsets, leather gear, belts, purses and shower curtains.

Luhman has owned the business, located in the Broadway Market, since 1986.

"A lot of my friends were in the industry. I apprenticed for six intense months," he said.

For the first eight years the business was a franchise, then Luhman went independent. Luhman has two employees: Mitch Caddy, who has been there for 12 years, and Clayton Yorton, who has been there for three and learned the trade as an apprentice

"I never imagined I would become a cobbler, but like Ward and Mitch, I apprenticed for a friend," said Yorton, displaying one of his handmade tools.

They are surrounded in a small space by countless knives, shoe staplers, sharp tools and shiny red Dutch, German and American machines that are continuously whirring and spinning.

"At least I still have all my fingers," laughed Yorton.

"It's work I can be proud of," said Caddy, himself a cobbler for 13 years. "It's really something of substance to make something functional again and keep another pair of shoes out of a landfill."

The customer requests are as diverse as people in Seattle.

"A guy parked his Jeep out front and asked me if I could install gator-nets to keep his dog from jumping out and I helped him with that," said Yorton.

"One day a man came in, popped off his wooden, artificial leg and put it on the counter and asked if I could fix it. I did a stitch job and rivets for him. Sometimes we shorten walking canes and put rubber tips on them," said Luhman.

Luhman said that fewer than 5 percent of Americans repair their shoes, opting instead to just throw them away. In Europe, roughly 15 to 20 percent of people get their shoes repaired. Still, Broadway Shoe Repair sees roughly 50 customers a day.

"The shoes are better there and they take better care of the shoes they own," he said.

Today, countless athletic shoes are worn until they fall apart and people purchase new ones. These kinds of shoes are not brought to a cobbler. The shoe industry has changed and many cobblers have gone out of business. As an example, Luhman pointed to "Shoe Service" magazine. The trade magazine used to be a monthly, but now publishes four times a year.

Gender differences account for a great deal of the shoe repair business. He said women, on average, buy more shoes and own 50 to 150 pairs. Men usually have between three and nine pairs of shoes.

"We love the ladies who have 50 pairs of shoes in their closets," said Yorton. Mitch Caddy echoed the sentiment:

"Some have whole closets full of shoes. One had 40 to 50 colors of shoe polish. She had them categorized by color. I've fixed over 150 pairs of her shoes in five years," he said.

"We call them shoe sale followers. Like clockwork, they come in every two months and they have three or four new pairs of shoes. They want water proofing and non-slip rubber soles," said Yorton.

Other requests? Yorton served a man who had recently had a hip replacement. He needed a quarter-inch taken off one shoe from each pair because one leg was shorter than the other. Another customer had them patch the same pair of shoes for 15 years. His wife kept throwing them away, and he would dig the pair out each time. He finally got rid of them when a friend gave him three new pairs.

These days, black is the most common color of boots and shoes they see; in the '80s and '90s, there were all different colors. Shoe dyes and sprays have changed; yellow or orange aren't seen much because they aren't being made anymore.

"People need to condition and polish their shoes, some people never do that, when the laces start to fray they need to replace them," said Luhman. Other sage advice? Alternate shoes and give them a chance to come back to their original shape.

So shoes pose greater challenges than others.

"I enjoy doing half-soles, heels and protective shoes. The labor intensive jobs are hand-sewing and zippers," said Caddy.

Customer Katherine Huber stepped inside wearing black socks and holding a pair of black leather mary janes. She showed them to Luhman and said, "I broke my shoe, can you fix it?"

"How's this afternoon?" Luhman said. The counter was so high he couldn't see she was standing in her socks.

"Can you do it sooner than that? I was wearing them when the elastic snapped?" Huber said.

Luhman looked over the counter and said, "How about 15 minutes?"

Huber and her friend Willie Frietas settled into the some comfortable swivel chairs while the shoes were getting fixed.

"I used to have about 25 pairs of shoes," Huber said. "I cleaned house and donated a bunch to Value Village. I asked myself, what do I wear and what don't I. Now I have 15 pairs, all black."

"If I had more money I'd buy more shoes," said Frietas. "I have nine pairs. When they wear out I throw them away and say, I'm going shopping for some new shoes!"

How many of us love a pair of shoes so much they can't throw them away or wear them regardless of the pain they can cause or how small they are. Such love keeps the Broadway Market cobblers in business. Given how sharp the tools are, though, it takes more than a love for shoes.

"To be a cobbler, you need a good eye and a steady hand," said Yorton.

Broadway Shoe Repair is located in the Broadway Market at 815 E. Republican St.

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