I have two pairs of boots that I really like. They’re exactly the same in style–knee-high leather riding boots, one pair brown, one black–and I have two pairs because they’re really comfortable and versatile. Accordingly, I wear the hell out of them, and they’ve borne up pretty well, considering the constant pavement-pounding they have to endure. Inevitably, though, some split seams and worn-out soles appeared. And one day I just couldn’t deny it: I had to get my beloved boots repaired.
So where to find a shoe repair place? I had to admit I didn’t have much experience in this area. I’ve worn a lot of shoes in my life, of course, but I’ve never really attempted to take care of them for the long term. When they wore out, I just replaced them with another (cheap) pair. But these boots were different. It wasn’t that they’d cost a lot or anything, but their sentimental value made them irreplaceable to me. I wanted to keep wearing them for as long as possible, and therefore I grudgingly admitted that I would have to entrust them to the care of a professional.
The only shoe repair store I knew about in my community was a place about five blocks from me. I think a friend must have told me about it or something, because I couldn’t recall how I knew about it otherwise. I certainly couldn’t remember having seen any promotional material of any kind from this particular business, but since word of mouth is supposed to be the best advertising, I thought it had to mean something that I had even heard about “some shoe repair place on Seventh Street.” So, one sunny Saturday morning, I put my boots in a bag and set out to on a little journey to The Shoemaker’s Shop.
Saturday Morning–Initial Contact:
The store was tiny by twenty-first century business standards and innocuously situated in a residential area, nestled between wartime homes of various design. There in amongst the picket fences and clapboard siding were two big round Coca-Cola signs announcing the business, and I could still see the imprints of long-removed letters that had once proclaimed it as Perrault Grocery. One of the local freelance sign-painters in town had attacked the front windows at some point in the past, painting the phrase “The Shoemaker’s Shop. We Repair Any Footwear!” in large letters that were now peeling off and barely legible. There were two doors to the building. An old-style screen door first: metal, with a strong spring. The second door was wooden, with peeling whitish paint and a curlicued handle. There was a window in the top half of this door, partially obscured by bumper stickers, old signs, business cards. A bell was attached to the top of the door frame, and it clanged obnoxiously as it opened.
A lumpy overstuffed couch faced me as I entered, placed against a wall in what must be the “waiting area.” An old blanket had been thrown on the couch, festooning it with orange and brown images of cowboys and pioneers with covered wagons. The blanket (and the couch, most likely) were a little musty, a little dirty. There were gold-coloured fringes on the edge of the blanket, some of which look a little frayed. The couch and its covering were reflective of the ambiance of the entire store. I felt like I had gone through a time-warp, but I had no idea into what era I had been thrust. Anything from the 1950s to the 1970s would have encompassed the decor I was faced with, and I was trying to figure all of this out when suddenly a HUGE DOG emerged from the back of the building and galumphed towards me, sniffing and nosing and bunting its enormous head against my legs. A Rottweiler. The word Huge must be repeated.
I froze. I have never been afraid of dogs, and in fact my general animal-loving instincts have compelled me to pet any animal I encounter out in the world, despite repeated admonishments by friends for indulging in this practise. “It might bite you!” I have been told on multiple occasions when I have instinctively and enthusiastically reached out my hand to bond with a foreign canine, and I had to admit my nervous friends have a point. Especially with dogs of the Rottweiler persuasion. This was one of those breeds that invited caution, and every bit of wary advice I had received in the past came back to me as I watched this particular Rottweiler snuffling around my ankles. I felt like I had a choice in this moment. I could choose to heed all the warnings I could hear echoing in my head, or I could go with my instincts and just show some affection towards this animal. He seemed friendly, which may have been my own desperate re-framing of this situation, but I decided I needed to believe it as fact. After a mere second of deliberation I chose to pat him tentatively on the head. Luckily he responded favourably, and we were in the process of becoming friends when the dog’s owner revealed himself.
Imagine if Popeye ran a shoe-repair business on the side. That’s what occurred to me when this particular proprietor emerged from the building’s depths. A man in his seventies or so shuffled forth and stared at me with consternation. His grizzled visage had at least a day’s growth of whiskers and he sported multiple tattoos on his sinewy arms.
“Didn’t even know that door was open.” His words were barely intelligible past the unlit cigarette that dangled precariously out of his mouth. He didn’t look very happy to have been disturbed.
“Uh…well…it is.” I knew I was stating the obvious, but I didn’t know what else to say. I stood there awkwardly, holding my precious boots, while the dog snuffled around.
“I was just workin’ on a leather coat back there,” the man continued. “Guy needs the collar fixed, and I couldn’t find a way to get the fuckin zipper to lie flat once I reattached it. But then I realized I could just lift up the flap and stick the motherfucker under there, just like that. So then I was gonna go have a couple drags of weed.”
This revelation, especially the last tidbit, was probably more information than I needed to know about my local shoe repairman. Obviously I had caught him off-guard. It appeared that Saturday was not normally a business day for this establishment, but the door had certainly been open and so here I was. I was a bit off-guard myself. What should I do now? Did I want to entrust my favourite footwear to some guy who had candidly admitted to me that he was smoking illegal drugs in the back room? Not that I had any problem with that per se, but it wasn’t normally part of any typical transactional banter in most businesses. Should I come back some other day? As I was trying to decide this, the dog shoved its nose into my free hand.
“Such a great dog,” I offered. The man grunted in reply. We both looked at its wagging tail for a few seconds.
“So watcha got there?” He was ready to do business now, it seemed. I offered up my boots and showed him the soles and the weak seams at the back of the heels. The man examined them for a second and then erupted.
“Why the hell’d you let them get this bad? You’re supposeda bring em in before they get like this!”
Now I was in trouble not only for interrupting his Saturday morning toke break, but also for the sad state of my footwear. I tried to make some apologetic noises, but it seemed I wasn’t done being admonished.
“Whaddya use on em?” It took a second, but I realized that he was asking about the way I protected them against the winter elements.
“Just that spray stuff,” I offered, figuring he would know what I meant.
“Aghh, that spray’s no fuckin good. Gotta use this shit.” He reached up to a shelf and grabbed a greasy tin that looked like it had been around since the 1950s. “Put some a this on em. Do er right up.” I tried to at least scan the brand name on the tin, but after waving it in my general direction for a few seconds he placed it back on the shelf.
“Uh, ok.” I thought it was best to just agree. The dog, by this time, had shuffled back behind the counter and lowered itself to the floor with a thump, its curiosity about the morning’s interloper suitably satiated.
“So.” I decided it was time to get down to business and then leave these two to their own devices. “Can you do anything with them?” .
“Hell ya,” he said, sounding a little indignant that I should infer otherwise. Strike one for me, I thought. He grabbed a scrap of paper and a stub of pencil. “What’s yer number?”
I gave him my phone number and watched him transcribe it labouriously on the paper and then attach it to one boot with a twist-tie.
“Do you want my name or anything?” I wanted to give him as much information as I could, to ensure that I would actually see my favourite boots again.
“Nah. I like numbers better than names.” And shoes better than people, it seemed. I was apprehensive about this whole procedure, but it appeared that I was going to leave my boots here, partly because I didn’t know how, at this point, I could get out of it. This guy might know what he was doing, but he sure as hell didn’t act very professional about it, and customer service was obviously not something he put much stock in. Even if I had surprised him on a weekend morning, I was still a customer, and judging from our interactions I was a bit unsure about whether he really wanted me to be one at all. I decided I would see how this played out, but at the moment I wasn’t sure I was going to be recommending this place to anyone with shoe repair requirements.
The man handed me a piece of paper. It was the business card for a bowling alley, curiously not a local one. After a second I realized that he had scrawled the phone number for his own business on the top of the card.
“I gotta coupla doctor’s appointments in Winnipeg this week,” he was saying to me. “So probably won’t be done til the end of the week. Gimme a call.”
I looked at the barely readable numbers on the card and decided to drop by in person the following Friday. It just felt like it would be more productive. I bade him goodbye, smiled at the dog, and cast a longing look back at my orphaned boots before entering back into my twenty-first century Saturday morning. I hoped I was going to see those boots again (and in wearable condition, at that), but I bravely tried to put a positive spin on this experience. What an unexpected adventure, that apparently wasn’t over yet.
Friday Afternoon—The Return:
Going back inside the nondescript building that housed The Shoemaker’s Shop for the second time, I noticed more details. There were copious old cartoons and yellowing newspaper articles affixed to the walls in every direction, as well as a faded calendar from October 1992 with a picture of a flame-adorned motorcycle. There was a big sign on the wall facing the door, with stenciled letters in black and red: “ALL ARTICAL’S MUST BE CLEAN. If you can’t clean ’em, I won’t fix ’em.” Dog hairs formed a second cover on the couch, supplementing the gaudy blanket I had seen before. I was surprised that on my first visit I had not even been aware of the HUGE cactus plant in a big pot next to the couch–the kind of cactus that has long finger-like tentacles with sharp spines sticking out of them. These spears were tied up with rope and bungee cord in a couple of places, so that they didn’t overbalance the pot, and the bound fronds reached upwards, treelike, almost to the ceiling. I looked over and saw a similar cactus in the front window, almost as big. How long had these plants been here? Had the old man nurtured them to grow so large – repotting, pruning, watering, caring for them? Or had they grown this massive despite neglect? They are desert plants, after all. Perhaps they thrived in this dusty time capsule, groping for sun and moisture just as they would in some arid outdoor wasteland.
There was a man waiting by the counter, either for shoes or for service. He wore a western shirt– the kind with pearly snap buttons and scalloped pocket edges. Jeans, a big belt buckle. Rubber boots, which didn’t really fit with the rest of his outfit, but I soon saw why. Mr. Shoemaker emerged from the back of the store, carrying a pair of dirty beat-up cowboy boots. His pet followed, this time prevented from venturing past the counter by a wire gate. The huge dog stared longingly out the front window but did not make a sound. The tops of the boots the shoemaker was carrying flop over, and their scuffed soles grate on the glass of the countertop. They have definitely seen better days.
“Can’t fix em,” The man barks out gruffly. “Leather’s too old. Won’t hold the stitch. Better off gettin a new pair.”
“Dammit,” is the cowboy’s response. “Had these for over ten years. They’re all wore in.” His stoic expression does not change throughout this exchange, but he is evidently disappointed at the professional dismissal of his beloved boots.
“Can’t help it. Can’t do nothin with em. Too dirty to fix anyway.” He has been here before, and has no sympathy for his customer. Like his sign says, if you can’t clean em…
The cowboy slinks away dejectedly with his unrepaired footwear and the shoemaker spots me then, through slightly rheumy eyes. I smile pleasantly and remind him that I was the person who barged in on his last Saturday morning with my unexpected boots. I can see him trying to place me in his mental Rolodex of faces and shoes. I suspect he remembers the shoes better than the faces, and this is confirmed when he recites:
“Two pairs of boots. Black and brown. Fix the soles and the back of the heels.”
“Yes,” I respond. Since he appeared to be a man of few words, I wasn’t going to bore him with chitchat. I got to the point.
“Not quite finished em. Take about 20 minutes.”
“OK. I don’t mind waiting.” And I didn’t. It was a beautiful day and I was on my lunchbreak. Despite the dog hair, I settle down on the couch and continue to observe my surroundings.
Most of the items tacked up around the shop had a similar theme. A bumper sticker on the door declares, “Self-defense is not a legal right, it’s a human right,” and another tacked to the wall behind the couch proclaimed, “Gun control is when you use both hands.” The cartoons portrayed indignant gun owners defending their right to bear arms and were scotch-taped to any available wall-space, joined by various credos and newspaper clippings supporting the anti-gun registry lobby. Apparently this guy, with his dog and his arsenal, knew how to defend himself against any intruders, lest I was worried. I began to wonder just how many firearms were stored in the rooms behind this wall. I tried to peek into the back rooms to satisfy this curiosity, but all I could see were dusty stacks of old Popular Mechanics magazines and a large animal trap on the far wall with the penciled label “Newfoundland mousetrap” attached to it.
The door opened suddenly, setting the bell clanging. A middle-aged woman came in, one of those 60ish types, slightly roundish, who wear sweatshirts and comfortable pants as a uniform and sport the greying permed hair and round glasses that make them virtually indistinguishable from others in their age bracket. She seemed slightly taken aback to encounter me sitting there on the couch. I smiled pleasantly again and then offered, “I’m just waiting,” as a probably unnecessary explanation for my presence. She still looked slightly confused but turned towards the desk as man and dog reappeared from behind the scenes.
“Hi Al!” she sang out, and then handed him a slip of paper which looked similar to the one the man now known as Al had given me on my first visit. Obviously she was a repeat customer, because Al merely grunted a reply and tossed the paper aside as he went to retrieve her footwear.
“Pair of blue moccasins,” the woman calls after him.
“Ya, ya,” was Al’s response. He comes back with them.
The woman inspects the moccasins and looks pleased at the result. “Good as new,” she said.
“Better than new!” Al retorts with mock indignation. He shoots me a (slightly toothless) grin as he says this, and the woman smiles at me, too. They are enjoying this banter, it seems– maybe even more this time because they have an audience. I was a little surprised at the acknowledgement but had to admit I was also enjoying listening to them. Now the old shoemaker had a name and a clientele, customers who accepted his curmudgeonly manner, hopefully because he did good work. They probably even enjoyed being grouched at by him, and I suspected that if I let myself, I might become one of those victims myself.
The woman settled up with Al and she left with her greatly improved moccasins. Without a word to me, Al retreated back to his workshop. Some kind of machine started making a very loud noise seconds later. I got up and paced around the tiny waiting area, a little restless. There were a number of newspapers stacked up on the counter, most at least three months old and beginning to yellow from the heat of the sun through the nearby window. The shelves behind the counter were piled with shoes and boots in various states of disrepair, identified by scribbled notes that probably only Al could decipher. These were interspersed with knick-knacks and curios that should have seemed out of place but somehow just reinforced the uniqueness of this niche business: a jar full of tiny seashells, a disembodied doll’s head with one eye stuck shut, a tipi built out of popsicle sticks. A shadow of dust covered them, as if they had not been handled for some time. It seemed, though, as if each one held its own significance and value, and had been placed on display with care and deliberation – and then neglected. I was fascinated. How had these things come to be here? Did Al have children or grandchildren who had fashioned these crafts or who had forgotten parts of their toys after the car was packed too hurriedly?
A certificate taped to the wall caught my eye. It was unframed and the corners of the paper were starting to curl up, but nonetheless its message was still proudly proclaimed:
in appreciation for his longtime service and expertise
on behalf of his loyal customers
The ungainly syntax only made the sentiment more endearing. I couldn’t make out the two unintelligible signatures at the bottom of the page, but I had no doubt that they were sincere about their claims.
The mysterious machine behind the scenes ground to a halt, and Al shuffled out to meet me, my freshly-repaired boots in his hand. He was followed by his canine companion, who sighed heavily and resumed his doleful observations of the unattainable outdoors. Al showed me his handiwork. He had resoled both pairs and expertly patched the holes on the heels, finishing up with a new coat of polish on each boot. You could hardly tell there had been any need for repairs at all. Expertise, indeed.
“Looks great,” I offered. “How much?”
Al merely grunted in reply and scribbled some calculations on a scrap of paper. Apparently his accounting system had not progressed beyond the pen-and-paper stage, but no matter– I could see I was well on my way to becoming one of his loyal customers, despite (and probably because of) his low-tech approach.
As Al finalized the bill, I took one last look around this quirky hole-in-the-wall, hoping, I supposed, for one last clue to the personality of its proprietor. And then, amidst the clutter of clippings and cartoons that, in addition to being affixed to every possible wall surface had also been shoved under the glass of the countertop, I saw a poem. It had been clipped out of some magazine and now its quaintly centered couplets lay there, unabashedly out of place among the collage of gun cartoons and right-wing slogans. Poetry. You just never know about people, I mused.
Al had disappeared behind the wall again for some reason, so I had to time to scan the verses. It wasn’t anything famous, or even very well-written, for that matter, but I could tell its subject had hit home for Al. It was called “A Dog’s Plea,” and it went like this:
Treat me kindly, my beloved friend, for no heart in all the world is greater than the loving heart of me.
Do not break my spirit with a stick, for though I should lick your hand between blows, your patience and understanding will more quickly teach me the things you would have me learn.
Speak to me often, for your voice is the world’s sweetest music, as you must know by the fierce wagging of my tail when your footstep falls upon my waiting ear.
Please take me inside when it is cold and wet, for I am a domesticated animal no longer accustomed to bitter elements.
I ask no greater glory than the privilege of sitting at your feet beside the hearth.
Keep my pan filled with fresh water, for I cannot tell you when I suffer thirst.
Feed me clean food that I may stay well, to romp and play and do your bidding, to walk by your side, and stand ready, willing and able to protect you with my life, should your life be in danger.
And, my friend, when I am very old, and I no longer enjoy good health, hearing and sight, do not make heroic efforts to keep me going. I am not taken gently. I shall leave this earth knowing with the last breath I draw that my fate was always safest in your hands.
By the time I finished reading, Al had come back with his official bill–two numbers and a total scribbled on the back of an old receipt. I gave him my money and watched as he made change, and suddenly I felt a little choked up. I couldn’t speak, so I just reached far over the counter to give the dog a pat on its huge head as I turned to go. I wasn’t sure if Al noticed my sudden emotion, but I couldn’t contain it. I felt like I was leaving with more than just new boots. Something within me had been repaired.