Boston Cobbler Salvages Shoes

By Justine Hofher
BU News Service

Walking through George’s Shoe Repair conjures up images of a battlefield, or, more specifically, a doctor’s medical field tent, pitched after a particularly gruesome skirmish.

The repair shop is located off Union Park Street in Boston’s South End, and could easily be walked past, as there is no signage. It is located in the basement of a nondescript red brick townhouse, down a flight of ten or so stairs. Customers’ eyes take a minute to adjust to the dim lighting, and then the true carnage appears.

The injured shoes sit in whatever bags customers had lying around: White and green Lowe’s bags, pink-striped Victoria’s Secret bags, unmarked brown shopping bags, massive white and black Lord & Taylor Bags, torn navy duffle bags, Nike and Puma gym bags, and white trash bags that say “Thank You” in red lettering all hold piles and piles of victims.

The bags take up whatever space is first offered—garbage bags line the linoleum-checkered floor of the hallway leading into the shop, purple shopping bags sit precariously on top of a black painted bookshelf, an off-white CVS bag dangles off a cream plastic side table beside an empty can of Red Bull and a half-empty container of Utz Party Mix.

George Triantafillidis, the owner of George’s Shoe Repair, does not discriminate: he takes shoes of all colors, designs and sizes. Black patent leather lady’s pumps from Payless sit beside five hundred-dollar brown leather Frye motorcycle boots, stylishly studded with gold hardware. Dainty red Italian leather boots lay intimately entwined with a massive pair of men’s gray suede lace up boots, so worn and frayed that they look like a dead mouse.

Boston winters, biting cold, snowy and icy, are particularly hard on Bostonian’s shoes, which suffer broken heels, salt stains, frayed zippers, and worn-through soles in varying degrees of trauma between late November and mid-March.

Triantafillidis does his very best to minimalize casualties, like any good field doctor, and, contrary to his modesty, he has a wildly positive success rate for mostly using machinery from over a century ago.

“You don’t need much,” Triantafillidis said with a shrug. “This is the heart of the operation right here. You have a basic stitcher, and the rest is glue, polish, clamps, and hammers and nails.”

Triantafillidis either downplays the importance of his job, or perhaps, he is unaware of the historical and cultural significance of his occupation’s subject matter: shoes. Shoes are as old as man. The well-known “Iceman” of 3,000 B.C., found in the Alps in between the borders of Austria and Italy, wore leather cowhide shoes stuffed with grass for warmth, before he was shot with an arrow, according to National Geographic. The Romans wore open-toed leather sandals with a cork base or boots made of strips of leather on their way to the Coliseum. Paul Revere, one of our favorite Bostonians and icon of the American Revolution, was probably wearing black leather shoes (made from vegetable-tanned leather) with silver buckles or laces on his famous midnight ride to Lexington, Massachusetts.

So it is natural, then, that cobbling, the trade job of repairing broken shoes, is almost as old as the history of shoes themselves. When humans began settling in communities and specializing their work, cobblers emerged to fix damaged shoes because it was cheaper to fix the broken shoes, rather than buying a new pair. Despite the field’s longevity, the last century has shown a marked decrease in American cobblers.

In 1922, there were 50,000 cobblers in America. As of 2011, the Department of Labor Statistics reports 9,200 people working in the shoe repair industry, according to Auburn University.

The stitcher Triantafillidis uses is an antique industrial leather patcher and stitcher sewing machine. Specifically, it’s a black Singer, the gold enamel logo “Singer” chipping away so much so that the word appears to be a shadow, a trick of the light. He said he isn’t sure how old it is, but guesses about one hundred years or so. His father salvaged it when he first began his own shoe repair store.

Singer has always been the leading company for sewing machines, as Isaac Singer created the patent for the very first practical sewing machine in 1850, according to the Singer company’s website.

Singer reformed the bulky Lerow and Blodgett machine, which had a circular movement of the shuttle that required a twist of the thread at every single revolution, to a straight needle that would move to and fro in a straight line. Singer’s first model had a straight eye-pointed needle and traverse shuttle, an overhanging arm, a table to support the cloth or leather, and a wheel that extended through a slot in the table to feed the material through.

Rather than using a hand crank to generate power like so many other machines at the time, Singer conceptualized using a treadle like a spinning wheel. By 1921, Singer offered portable electric-motor powered sewing machines and had sold approximately three million machines worldwide, according to the company’s website.

Triantafillidis said unlike other modern industries, the shoe repair industry has remained much the same over time, at least in the last century or so. His foot-powered electric Singer still stitches cleanly through 5mm of leather, just as it did for his father, John, and whoever owned it before him.

“It’s been what it is for decades now,” Triantafillidis said of cobbling. “Actually, the only difference is these ones, creating the sole with the body of the shoe.” He points to a pair of men’s Teva brown leather hiking boots. The black rubber outsole looks infused with the body of the shoe, making it extremely difficult to repair.

To fix most soles, George Triantafillidis glues new soles onto the bottom of the worn-out shoes, then shaves it using a trimmer to grind it close to the original intended thickness of the soles. Then, he refines the sole on a sand belt. The finisher, a black circular brush, gives shoes a polished shine that customers like. All of this repair-work is done at his “workstation,” which looks like a chrome metal box. It is adorned with his vintage stitcher, a The-Master brand grinder from the 1950s, along with an assortment of tools, including thick black scissors, rows of heavy pliers, paring knives, and, of course, tins of Meltonian’s Boot & Shoe cream polish.

Triantafillidis’s said his supplies come from Dexter Leather, a wholesale shoe repair supply shop in Lowell, Massachusetts. There is no listing for the business and Triantafillidis said he does not have the phone number, but spools of leather laces tend to cost between $20 and $30 dollars per spool, according to Tandy Leather Factory in Boston.

Suede laces cost about ten dollars per spool. Zipper chains amount to about three dollars per foot and individual zipper slides run at about two dollars apiece. Black, brown and tan leather dyes cost seven dollars per four-ounce bottle. The cost of running a trade business such as Triantafillidis’s can add up quickly.

Like many doctors too busy treating battle wounds to worry about dressing professionally, Triantafillidis seems too preoccupied with tending to his customers’ scratched, scuffed and broken shoes to dress up for a day’s work. As he deftly moves around his closet-sized store, grabbing a shoe here, a pair of pliers there, he wears a black faded t-shirt that says “Cadillac Village Norwood” in peeling white letters and charcoal gray sweatpants splattered with white paint stains. His hands and forearms are covered in black shoe polish that is embedded under his nails, and some smudges of polish even dot his forehead and cheeks.

Although the hundreds of pairs of shoes lying bagged around his workspace appear thrown about haphazardly, Triantafillidis said he has a system.

“Well, the ones that just came in go to the back of the line,” Triantafillidis said, gesturing to the freshly dropped-off bags at the entrance of the hallway. “I keep track by writing down names and phone numbers and keeping the shoes with a ticket with a number on it. They get the corresponding ticket.”

Triantafillidis said he usually just remembers his customers, though.

A harried-looking young woman rushes into the store carrying a mammoth hot pink laundry bag filled with shoes. “I know I have a lot,” she apologizes. “I want to know what’s worth saving.”

She reaches into the depths of the bag and pulls out a pair of well-worn black leather boots, explaining to Triantafillidis that the zippers keep popping open while she wears them.

“I’ll tell you why, this is metal on metal and when you pull it over, it doesn’t have the tension to hold it together,” Triantafillidis said. “You just need to crimp it. I’ll show you how.”

He assures her that her beloved leather boots are not missing any teeth and the zipper looks “pretty new overall.”

“I’ll put the crimp on it, ma’am,” Triantafillidis said, as the woman beams at the good news. “Usually puts enough pressure on the teeth to bind it together.”

As with all customers who enter Triantafillidis’s store, he uses impeccable manners, frequently spurting out, “No worries, ma’am,” “Not a problem, miss,” and “I’ll take care of it!”

Accompanying his immaculate manners, Triantafillidis has an easy smile, brown friendly eyes, and a thick Boston accent that his customers seem to love. Though he said he never uses the Internet much, George’s Shoe Repair gets very high reviews on Yelp, an American business review website.

One Boston reviewer, Justin M., wrote that he used George’s Shoe Repair after reading the business’s high Yelp reviews. He said he was so pleased with Triantafillidis’s “tremendous” ability to remove stains from his $350 dollar pair of leather loafers, that he would “definitely recommend them and do further business with George.” He gave the business five stars, just like almost every other reviewer.

Even though Triantafillidis has regular customers, he chooses not to raise his prices, but rather, keep the ones his father instated. A simple shoeshine runs at five dollars, while a broken heel costs about $12 dollars. Fixing soles is the most costly repair, standing at $45 dollars.

He fixes about 20 to 30 pairs of shoes per day, spending roughly ten to 30 minutes on most repairs, and said he has “no idea” how many he fixes in a year.

“I never keep track,” Triantafillidis said.

As George dexterously polishes the soles of a pair of men’s brown and white leather oxfords, he talks about his discovery of Yelp and his views on advertising for cobbling in general.

“About six years ago, I figured out what the hell Yelp was,” Triantafillidis said. “At the time, I had 17 reviews and some were a page long and I was like, ‘Who the hell has time to write an essay on the Internet?’ Not me.”

In the summer, he said the hours he works are “peanuts,” but come fall and winter, Triantafillidis’s time spent in the shop skyrockets to about 70 to 80 hours a week.

Triantafillidis said he has not been on the site in two or three years because Yelp was trying to sell him more space. He said he prefers “word of mouth” advertising, which is free.

With more advertising, perhaps he could boost sales, but he said he has seen a large uptick in sales this fall anyway.

“This year, it’s been like the skies have opened up and it’s raining shoes,” Triantafillidis said, spreading his arms for emphasis.

His wife, Debbie, said she attributes the increase in business to the state of the economy.

“People can’t afford to buy the five hundred dollar pair of shoes they used to, Debbie Triantafillidis said,  “So for a $500 dollar pair of shoes, yeah, it’s worth fixing them rather than going out and buying another pair.”

The most expensive pair of shoes the Triantafillidises have housed were men’s black leather Hermés boots that cost $7 thousand.

“Charged $25 bucks to fix em’.” He said, laughing. “A repair is a repair.”

Debbie Triantafillidis runs the delivery side of George’s Shoe Repair, and spends hours each day driving all over Greater Boston to pick-up and drop-off customers’ shoes.

In September alone, she picked-up 745 pairs of shoes. She said they try and get shoes back to customers within a couple of days or less.

While George Triantafillidis learned some of the trade from his father, he said he is mostly “self-taught.” His father, John, moved to Boston from Thessalonica, Greece, and opened a shoe repair store in the prudential district for 26 years until Alzheimer’s disease began to set in. George then ran the store for six years till the lease expired, and he moved the business to the basement of his parent’s townhouse in the South End.

A Wentworth college graduate, George Triantafillidis was initially going to be an architect, but said he became discouraged by the sense that to succeed, he had to “know people,” and he decided he did not feel like going into the corporate world.

He and his wife have two children, a boy and a girl, yet they both said they highly doubt their children will carry on the family business.

“Most of my generation don’t even want to get into it,” George Triantafillidis said. “It’s too dirty. They can make, I wouldn’t say the same amount of money, but close to it, in another profession. The only benefit of this is you’re your own boss.”

There are about 50 shoe repair stores in the Greater Boston area at present. The current number seems far smaller to George Triantafillidis than the amount of cobblers there used to be.

Many shoe repair services are getting lost to high rents and a scarcity of people willing to get into trade jobs, George Triantafillidis said. By running the business from his parent’s home, he is able to work rent-free, and only pays for electricity and supplies.

“Eventually they’re going to realize the professional workforce isn’t all its cracked up to be,” he said of his children’s generation.

With the dwindling number of shoe repair shops, there is one thing George Triantafillidis does not need to worry about: competition. If people think your prices are reasonable, your personality is agreeable and your work is good, “They’ll come back,” he said.

“You just can’t say you’re the best,” Triantafillidis said. “Everyone tries to do their best.”

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