Lawrence’s lone cobbler sees rise in business

Glen Roussel repairs shoes this week at BKB Leather, 811 Elm St., in North Lawrence. Shop owner Bruce Barlow says business has made an upswing during the recent economic downturn.

With a small fountain in the front yard and multicolored wind chimes dangling above the porch, BKB Leather is not your average shoe repair store.

“It’s a cultural experience,” said Tiffany Francis, a Lawrence mother who recently brought in a pair of her daughter’s vintage boots to be re-heeled. “The artwork outside and the live music inside, it was fun.”

Rusty bicycles and junkyard-like oddities dot the premises of the shop, which is in a converted garage. Its walls are lined with worn chestnut loafers, crackled ginger cowboy boots and spiky mauve pumps. It smells faintly of burning incense, and the dull whirring of the polishing machines is almost calming.

It’s one of 7,000 cobbler shops still open in the U.S. — and the only one in Lawrence. Although the enterprise may seem antiquated to some, owner Bruce Barlow said business has never been better. Barlow sees a steady stream of customers, friends and fellow musicians come through the swinging screen door of his 23-year-old shop.

“The fact that we’ve been around for a number of years … word of mouth just kind of continually brings people in,” Barlow said.

Recently, though, he has noted an increase in business.

“People are looking to save money,” Barlow said. He doesn’t, however, think the economy is the only factor in the increase. “I think most of it’s due to the media blitz. Somebody picked up on the shoe industry as an option to fix (something) yourself, rather than throw it away.”

Francis, the customer, thought the recent interest may also have to do with the rise in environmental awareness.

“It’s the whole ‘go green’ re-using thing,” she said. “It’s being smart. Re-use something instead of buying it new.”

Barlow said his shop, at 811 Elm St. in North Lawrence, works on shoes costing anywhere from $10 to $800.

“If you have a unique pair (of shoes), it’s the place to go,” Francis said.

But for any pair, a trip to the cobbler rather than the shoe store could keep a little cash in your wallet.