Great Bend It’s the smell of leather that immediately lets you know you are somewhere exceptional.
Somewhere not many think to frequent in a day where “use and toss” is common.
But here, in a modest shop in this town’s square, a trade dating back hundreds of years remains strong, where residents bring their boots and shoes to be repaired and shined.
Business, the owner says, is good. And in times of economic hardship, he expects it to get better.
“We’re steady, that’s for sure,” Matt Felke said as he stopped the electric stitching machine to greet a man walking through the front door. “We definitely aren’t hurting for customers.”
Felke, a 46-year-old former cowboy, bought the shoe repair shop in 2008 from longtime owner Jerry Becker, hence the combination of two names for the business: “Becker’s Shoe Repair, the Boot Doctor.”
“He is first, as far as I am concerned,” said Felke, who added the “Boot Doctor” at the suggestion of his two daughters. “Everyone in town knows him.”
And he knows everyone.
Many times Becker can identify customers from their footwear. Years of repeat customers — who tend to bring in the same types of shoes over and over — have created a steady flow of business.
But it hasn’t been without changes.
Shoes, Becker said, are not made the way they used to be, and many times, modern styles can’t be repaired.
“Years ago, you repaired everything, even children’s shoes,” he said. “But the quality is not near as good as it was. Now you can go to Wal-Mart and buy a pair of shoes for $19.95, wear them and pitch them. You just can’t repair those cheaper shoes.”
To fill the void in business left by a disposable society, Felke expanded the business when he took over in March. Now, more retail fills the front of the store, and a place for saddle repair occupies the back.
There are similarities in repairing saddles and shoes, although Felke had no formal training in either.
A cowboy for more than 21 years who repaired saddles at his home out of necessity, he was looking to get out of the business he calls “a young man’s job” when, on a whim, he asked Becker who was going to fix his boots when he retired.
“I’d been bringing my boots to him since I was a kid,” Felke said. “When he answered, ’I don’t know,’ I didn’t have sense enough to keep my mouth shut. I said, ’Maybe you could teach me how.”’
So, on the first day of March, Felke bought the store and started learning the trade.
Becker, a shoe cobbler for nearly 50 years who learned the trade from his father, was happy to have a buyer for a business he says “not many young folks are turning to.”
A decline in the shoe repair industry spans decades, leaving only about 7,000 cobblers in the United States, and only a handful in Kansas.
But business remains steady at the Great Bend store, where advertising is only relied on to get the word out about the new retail aspect.
“That was only a few ads,” Felke said. “Word of mouth is really our best bet.
“Around here, the feed yard and farm atmosphere is hard on boots. Guys who spend $200 or $300 on a pair of boots will try to use them as long as they can. They always will.”
And, he said, perhaps others will, too, as the economy tightens.
“It’s a way to save money,” Felke said, as an old, dirty apron — the words “repair shoes, save money” stitched across the front — hangs behind him.