Lately, business is a shoo-in for local shoe cobbler

BY TIERNEY HEIN | APRIL 10, 2009 7:30 AM

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A pair of gray cloth slippers placed on the counter looked as if a dog had ripped them apart. The fabric connecting the sole of the slipper to the upper was completely detached. Fixing them would take time and creativity. But making the slippers functional again is just another of Nick Nassif Jr.’s daily challenges, and it’s how he planned to spend the rest of his Saturday afternoon.

“This is exactly what I’m talking about,” said Nassif, the owner of the Shoe Doctor, 624 S. Dubuque St., as he set the slippers down. “It’s fixable, but not cost effective to restitch these, so I told the customer I’ll have to glue the fabric back together, but who knows how long it will hold.”

For Nassif — a 45-year veteran in the trade — business in the last few years has changed. What used to be the typical repairing of heels and soles has become tedious gluing and stitching of sandal straps and fixing holes in the material of cheap shoes.

As he quickly shuffles back and forth among the register window, endless shelves of repaired shoes, and overflowing containers of those awaiting restoration, Nassif places a pair of strappy, cheetah print wedges in a box and shakes his head.

“Business has increased, but it’s not with the high-end stuff,” Nassif said. “It’s because people are buying cheap shoes, and that compromises their quality.”

Beginning in the 1960s and over the next decades, the number of shoe-repair shops dropped 40 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. The industry has since struggled to combat the effects of the popularity of mass shoe production, the use of non-repairable materials, and varying fashion trends.

But those in the shoe repair trade may have found an answer to their problems.

In March, the unemployment rate rose to 8.5 percent, according the U.S. Bureau of Labor — an increase of 3.4 percent from March of the previous year. While people across the country are feeling the effects of the recession, their spending cuts have enabled shoe cobblers to find their place again, industry advocates said.

A fellow repairman brought Nassif to Iowa City several years ago, looking for help in his busy shop. Nassif had grown up around what would become his lifelong career at his father’s shop, Nick’s Shoe Clinic in Anamosa, Iowa. After his elderly Iowa City boss retired, Nassif stayed and began to make the business his own. Still residing in Anamosa, he commutes an hour each way.

Patrons at his shoe-repair shop range from the obvious business men and women to the not-so-obvious college student. The young customers are most enjoyable, Nassif said, because they are surprisingly prompt and responsible about picking up their footwear. He attributes this good quality to the newly found independence that comes with college.

UI senior Peter Tigges of Ankeny said he was impressed with how little time it took Nassif to put new soles on his Birkenstocks — and it was much cheaper than buying a new pair of shoes.

“I liked the guy at the Shoe Doctor,” Tigges, 21, said. “I remember he was a funny dude, and he said he had never seen anyone who took as good care of his Birks as I did.”

Nassif said he does a lot of repairs on Birkenstocks. Before, he used to see a lot of Doc Martens, but as styles change, he is forced to acclimate.

Officials at the Shoe Service Institute of America, an industry group composed of volunteers ranging from retail shoe-repair operators to wholesale trading partners and suppliers, have noticed a definite change in demand in the last few months.

“We now have to work longer and harder to compensate for the increase in volume,” said Randy Lipson, a member of the board of directors for the institute. “Consumers will have to wait a bit longer for us to get their shoes back. Doing the job right is more important to the consumer than getting it back fast.”

Lipson, a third-generation shoe craftsman from Chesterfield, Mo., hopes the industry will become a more permanent part of people’s lives in the sour economy.

“Once the consumer realizes what advantages we offer … they will consider our industry a normal part of their life, similar to dry cleaners, plumbers, or heating and cooling professionals,” he said.

While the shoe repair industry moves in cycles, this most recent spike has been borderline overwhelming, he said. Both he and Nassif are in the process of hiring more help to keep this unique industry flowing.

“The term ‘cobbler’ makes it sound like all I do is hack things up,” Nassif said. “What keeps me interested is the challenge and variety of the industry.”

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