The sole survivor

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WALDOBORO, Maine - With more Americans planting their feet in throwaway shoes and athletic footwear, the neighborhood shoe repair shop might seem like a relic from the past and a candidate for extinction.

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Cobbler Bill Wheeler works on a shoe at his shop in Waldoboro, Maine. He bought his machines and tools on eBay.  Associated Press
Associated Press
Cobbler Bill Wheeler works on a shoe at his shop in Waldoboro, Maine. He bought his machines and tools on eBay.

But don't tell that to Bill Wheeler. He entered the business four months ago at age 56, pumping new life into a collection of machines and hand tools that he purchased through eBay from a defunct repair shop.

The opening of Coastal Cobbler, sandwiched between an appliance business and a cellular phone office, means Waldoboro's 5,000 residents no longer have to travel 35 miles to Brunswick or 50 miles to Lewiston for shoe repairs.

It also bucks a decades-long decline in the number of repair shops. While cities still support multiple repair shops, many towns have none.

The number of cobblers has dropped from roughly 100,000 during the Great Depression to about 7,000 today, according to the Shoe Service Institute of America.

And the trend continues.

For every repair shop that opens, two or three are closing their doors, but the rate of attrition appears to be slowing, said Jim McFarland, who serves on the board of the Shoe Service Institute, an industry trade group staffed by volunteers.

"By 2020, unless we see a radical change, there will be around 5,000 or 6,000 shops," said Mr. McFarland, who operates a shop in Lakeland, Fla.

The cause of the decline is plain to see.

Last year's average retail price of a dress shoe - men's, women's and children's - was $32.59, according to the NPD Group Inc., a market research company in Port Washington, N.Y. Dress casual shoes were even cheaper, averaging $30.46 a pair.

That's considerably less than the $40 to $45 that most shops charge to put on a set of half soles and heels.

Also, dressier shoes make up a dwindling percentage of footwear sales. Last year, dress and dress casual shoe sales were $10.7 billion, roughly half of what Americans paid for sneakers and other athletic footwear.

Many of today's consumers have no familiarity with repair shops, and some are unaware that old shoes can be made as good as new, Mr. McFarland said. He cited estimates that only 10 percent of Americans have their shoes repaired.

Despite those worrisome figures, Mr. Wheeler decided to take the plunge. Skilled in the use of tools and machinery, the former shoe factory worker liked the idea of a trade that enables him to extend the life of a product that would otherwise be discarded.

"In a throwaway society, this is a really valuable thing," he said. "It does something for the environment, maybe make a bit of an impact."

Shoe repair has traditionally been a father-and-son business, in many cases begun by immigrants. Mr. McFarland, for example, stitched his first full sole when he was 16 and now runs the business his grandfather started.

But these days, fewer sons are following their fathers into the business.

In Mr. Wheeler's shop, the rates for full soles and heels are $70, half soles and heels $45, heels $21 and women's high heel lifts $12.

So far, he said, the customer response has been enough to keep him busy. Gunilla Broman of Friendship was delighted to learn that she could get her shoes repaired without having to travel to Brunswick.

"A lot of people don't repair their shoes, but I do," she said.

ON THE NET

Learn more about shoe repair at Shoe Service Institute of America Web site at: www.ssia.info .


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