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September 5, 2017 > Repair shop a shoe-in for Newark cobbler

Repair shop a shoe-in for Newark cobbler

By Johnna M. Laird

The Information Age didnÕt leave shoe repair shop owner Randall Armstrong behind. He just never saw the need to step into it. Armstrong operates his business without a website. He doesnÕt own a cell phone. As for computers, he only uses one when he mustÑto file his federal quarterly taxes.

Yet, Armstrong has defied an industry in decline. About 100,000 shoe repair shops operated during the 1930s and the Great Depression. By the 1970s, the numbers were falling, yet shoe repair shops remained a staple of small businesses with 65,000 operating across the nation. As the 1980s ended, somewhere between 10,000 and 18,000 shoe repair shops remained in business. Today, Shoe Service Institute of America estimates that shoe repair shops have dwindled to about 5,000 nationwide.

At A-1 Shoe Repair in a complex off Central Avenue in Newark behind Hulbert Lumber Ð a destination-location rather than one generating business foot traffic Ð Armstrong is already at work on a Friday morning, soothing jazz music playing in the background. His window sign reports store hours starting at 10 a.m., yet itÕs 9:40 and the door is wide open.

A second generation shoe repairman, Armstrong has spent most of his life in one shoe repair shop or another, mastering lessons taught by his father and other journeymen. ÒEither you are early or you are late,Ó explains Armstrong. ÒMy father said there was no such thing as on time.Ó

A customer walks in with a pair of heels in need of repair and sets them on the counter. ÒI was in the neighborhood,Ó she explains, Òand someone told me about your craftsmanship.Ó Armstrong smiles as he examines the shoes and explains: ÒYouÕll have to leave them for at least two days.Ó In the shoe industry, mall shops have opened in recent years offering quick turnarounds, explains Armstrong, with employees who have 30 days training in one aspect rather than total shoe repair. Acquiring skills and expertise to revive a pair of shoes to give them new life requires years, not days, to learn, explains Armstrong. A skilled cobbler can give shoes more lives than a cat. A premium pair of shoes can be resoled multiple times, according to Shoe Service Institute, menÕs shoes up to 15 times and womenÕs 10.

ÒWhat I love most about this business is seeing an old shoe come back as new,Ó says Armstrong, who admits he loves everything about the business. ÒIÕm repairing shoes and dealing with customers all day.Ó He moves so effortlessly around his shop as if he has never experienced a stress in his life that customers often say they envy his life of having his own business where he reports to himself. But they donÕt envy his income, retorts Armstrong.

His father, who returned from military service and worked in a repair shop at Stanford Shopping Center to learn to dye shoes before opening his own shop, tried to discourage Armstrong from shoe repair with words like ÒIt will never make you rich.Ó Knowing his son, he added, ÒIf you do it right, it will make you a living.Ó ArmstrongÕs brother chose to become an East Coast accountant while Armstrong followed his father into shoe repair, a business in which he grew up. At age five in 1964, Armstrong was leaning into a display window, arranging shoes at his fatherÕs first shop at Town and Country Shopping Center, the location of todayÕs Santana Row. Then in elementary school, he was racing to spend his afternoons Òwaiting the counterÓ and observing journeymen to learn skills and processes using long-arm stitching machines and buffers. As a child, he never worked on customer shoes. He was not allowed, but he acquired skills repairing old shoes left behind. By age 15, he had gained sufficient knowledge that his father entrusted him with managing one of the family shops after school and on weekends, overseeing journeymen more than twice his age.

In 1978, ArmstrongÕs father opened his first shop in Newark, to accommodate his wifeÕs commute to work in Oakland. Since moving to Newark, the shop has relocated four times. His father died in 2000 and Armstrong has worked alone, although he has occasionally hired workers from time to time. It just seems easier for him to do the work himself, given the standards he sets for himself. ÒI take pride in what I am doing. My dad always said, ÔIfÕs it worth doing, itÕs worth doing right.Õ When I do the work, there is nobody to blame,Ó he says.

Armstrong concentrates on the joys of operating a small business. ÒWhen I come in here every day, I am here to greet customers and do my work, no matter what is happening elsewhere in my life. I believe in showing up and handling my business.Ó

When he thinks about it, he admits to one worry in his world of feeling Òblessed to earn a living doing what I love.Ó In the back of his mind is the concern of finding rental space with reasonable rents. At his current location, he has a one-year lease. Despite his moves, customers Ð many repeat Ð seem to find him, a number coming from as far away as Stockton, Tracy, and Modesto, loyal to him the way they are to their Bay Area dentists and hairdressers. While he may steer clear of the Information Age, his customers often post rave reviews on YELP.

His handiwork even impressed a Londoner, who found him on a visit to San FranciscoÕs Bay Area. After Armstrong repaired one pair of shoes for the customer, the customer returned home and shipped another across the Atlantic for revival.

Armstrong doesnÕt know exactly how many pairs of shoes he repairs each week: above the buffering machine sit menÕs wingtip dress shoes, a police officerÕs motorcycle boots, low-cut hiking boots and nearly a dozen other shoe pairs. He admits he has more than enough work, so much that he often comes in on his days off, Sunday and Monday, which doesnÕt win favor with his wife.

Shoe repair is unlikely to pass on to a third generation. Blessed with two daughters, Armstrong says neither has shown an interest.

A-1 Shoe Repair is located at 5409 Central Avenue, Suite 16, in Newark and is open 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Thursday and Friday, and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday. For more information, call (510) 745-0154.

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