Wichita — A few years ago, an elderly man gave Hallie Reynolds’ husband a pair of shoes. They were well worn, a little beat up. But she knew they were high quality, so she took them to Wichita’s Jack Smith Shoe Repair.
“You don’t just throw things out if they can be fixed,” Reynolds said.
While she has been a regular customer of shoe repair shops for years, Reynolds is increasingly being joined by others who had never stepped foot inside those businesses.
“Work has been picking up the last eight, 10 months,” said Roger Rollman, owner of Cowboy Boot Shop. “You pretty much know it’s the economy. I don’t know what else it could be.
“When you can get a pair of shoes fixed for $30 to $40 instead of buying a new pair for $150, it’s not hard to figure it out.”
‘Lot of new customers’
All of Wichita’s shoe repair shops are seeing an increase in work. Nothing outlandish, but an increase nonetheless.
“I’m seeing a lot of new customers looking to extend the life of their shoes,” said Charlie Johnson, owner of Sam’s Shoe Repair.
After watching throwaways “eat up the market” for years, Johnson said it’s good to be busier.
Keith Woods, owner of Jack Smith Shoe Repair, said his business has doubled over the past few months. But he noted that’s also about the same time he moved six blocks east to be near a busy intersection.
“It’s probably a little bit of both,” Woods said. “I know it’s kept us in business.”
Richard Clark, owner of Advanced Shoe Repair, said there are exceptions to what can be fixed.
“Some people are reaching deep into the closet and bringing out stuff that probably should be thrown away,” he said. “I have to tell them, it’s over.”
But those $180 pair of Uggs can be cleaned for $30 to $35. If Rover chewed a hunk out of a shoe, there’s a chance it can be fixed.
Hard economic times can send consumers scurrying for fresh ideas to save money. Even if some of those ideas have been around for a very long time.
“My dad tells me stories of back in the Depression where shops had barrels of shoes waiting to be fixed,” said Randy Lipson, a third-generation shoe repairman who owns a shop in a St. Louis suburb. “The government was rationing shoes, and there was a month wait time to get them fixed.”
At the time, this country had about 120,000 shoe-repair shops, said Lipson, who is also on the board for the Shoe Service Institute of America, the industry’s trade organization. More than 75,000 were still around in the 1950s.
Now there are 7,000.
Those in the business locally recall Wichita having nearly 40 shoe repair shops in the 1970s. The number was sliced in half a decade later.
Today, Wichita has six.
The ranks are thinning for numerous reasons: synthetic soles, inexpensive shoes, expensive equipment and the lack of training available.
Bill Konomos is in a good position to get a read of the industry’s status. He’s a third-generation owner of Konomos Distributing, a Kansas City, Mo.-based supply house for shoe-repair shops.
“Business is definitely up,” he said. “It’s still cheaper to repair the better footwear than buy new.
“But we’re an industry that’s fading away. We need to save ourselves, or we won’t be around much longer.”
Preserving the industry
Konomos is also the only supplier in the area. Denver and Chicago are the next closest. Less than a decade ago, Wichita alone had two.
The nation once had a number of trade schools that taught shoe repair, including one run by Oklahoma State University. None exist now.
It can take two to three years to learn the trade as an apprentice.
Konomos said the industry has appealed to the federal government to fund an apprentice program.
“Not everyone can be computer guys,” he said.
But for now, the down economy may be tossing the industry a lifeline.
Lipson said a key to taking advantage of the opportunity is for an “owner to get out of the shop” and learn the latest repair techniques and be open to doing a wide range of repairs.
Most shops in Wichita deal with all things leather and some synthetic products.
“We try to fix whatever they bring in,” Woods said. “Very seldom do we turn anything down.”
Chris Smith, owner of J Smith Shoe Shop, said his business gets a boost by doing warranty work for Red Wing and Birkenstock. “But the economy has helped,” he said. “The last couple of months have been good.”
Much of the new business is coming from the younger generation, those who had never experienced the rich, leather smell of a repair shop.
“You just have to school them,” said Greg Anderson, owner of Advanced Shoe Care Centre. “You’ll get a lot of, ‘Gosh, I didn’t know you could fix that.”’
That particularly applies to women’s high heels. Shops replace the heel caps with a polyurethane material that’s durable and not slick.
Clark picks up a lot of his business from surrounding towns that have lost their shops. But he’s not sure what to make of the economy’s impact on his industry.
“I don’t get into the numbers,” he said. “I just try to work hard every day, but business is definitely up.”