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Cobbler philosophy: "If the shoe fits, repair it"

This is the first in a series on Stateside we're calling Artisans of Michigan.

Our first stop in this trip around Michigan is in downtown Northville at the Cobbler’s Corner.

“Shoe repairing is a lot more than what you think,” Tony Piccoli assures us as soon as we meet.

He says Cobbler’s Corner is the oldest shoe repair shop in Michigan. It originally began as the Northville Shoe Service owned by the Revitzer family, starting in 1928.

When you step inside, the front of the building is part shoe store, part displays of Piccoli’s work, some antique footwear and a glass cabinet full of shoe polish and brushes.

But, in the back, it looks like an exhibit at a history museum. A 1915 Singer sewing machine stands in the corner. Some of the other equipment looks to be about the same vintage. There are tiny hammers and odd looking tools hanging on the walls. Stocks of leather soles, shoe heels.

There were 50,000 cobblers in the U.S. at one point. Today there are about 7000 shoe repair shops. Cobblers used to keep their tricks of the trade secret.

Now, this ancient trade is using today’s tech to share shoe repairing tricks.

In fact, Piccoli is a co-founder of Shoe Repair International (SRI), an online social media group.

“And that unites cobblers from all over the world. We have more than 600 members. We have cobblers across the United States, Canada, South America, Europe, Japan, China, and a few members that we just added from Australia,” Piccoli explained.

It’s made a lonely profession a little less lonely.

Piccoli says he doesn't just work on shoes. People bring in all kinds of leather goods to be repaired..

“So, when a customer brings in something oddball,  maybe they can fix it and save a few bucks.

Credit Jodi Westrick / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Tony Piccoli being interviewed by Lester Graham at Cobbler's Corner in Northville, Michigan.

LG: Maybe repairing –well, I see a purse hanging there, maybe repairing purses or something like that?  

"We do all sorts of things. We do purses right here. This particular customer here has a problem that when she’s wearing it, the purse just opens up. I suggested putting Velcro right there to keep it closed. Just little simple things like that that we do.”

LG: Tell me about the quality of the footwear people are buying these days.

"In the area that I am in, I’m actually fortunate because a lot of men and women wear very high quality shoes. So, they really have a need for me. Most people, they wear throwaways. Fortunately, now with the new cements that we have, we can repair those throwaway shoes to keep them out of landfills. We promote recycling. Recycle and reuse."

LG: Well, your business is kind of reuse and recycle isn’t it?

"Basically, yeah. It’s keeping what you got. If you made the initial investment, why not keep it? If the shoe fits, repair it.”

Piccoli says you’ll never get rich being a cobbler, but you can make a decent living. He says people are interested in entering the trade. He told us he expects a young person to work in the shop this summer because he wants to learn to be a cobbler.

Piccoli starts working on a kitten heel – not that I actually knew this short version of high heels is called a kitten heel (see video below).

“This customer here where the heel is all chewed up, we’re going to take all that wrapping off and we’re going to re-wrap it with brand new leather, new heels. She’ll save her investment.”

In short order, he’s clamped, tapped, trimmed, and buffed the heel of the shoe to –he says- better than new.

“This will last a while. And then we’ll clean this up, condition it, and then give it back to her. She’ll be happy.”

Support for arts & cultural reporting on Michigan Radio comes in part from a grant from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Lester Graham reports for The Environment Report. He has reported on public policy, politics, and issues regarding race and gender inequity. He was previously with The Environment Report at Michigan Public from 1998-2010.