It was once such a necessary and highly regarded craft that it is a formal family name: Shoemaker.
With the U.S. industrial revolution most cobblers were downgraded to shoe repair, and youngsters today equate the term “cobbler” with “dessert.”
Now, no one is quite sure who will be around in 20 years to repair shoes.
Kids today don’t want to invest the time and energy into an apprenticeship that doesn’t result in big money, say local cobblers.
And some just don’t want to get their hands dirty.
A lost art
Local vocational schools aren’t teaching the craft, and probably will not in the near future, educators say.
“It’s a lost art,” says Silvio Palomba, owner of Silvio’s Shoe Repair, a Naples institution on U.S. 41, two blocks north of Fifth Avenue South.
Primarily, shoe repair has been passed down from generation to generation as a family business.
Palomba, 59, learned the craft 40 years ago in Boston from his father-in-law, Tommaso Falcucci. Palomba’s son, niece and nephew now work in the shop.
That isn’t likely to happen, he says.
“This is not a money-making business,” Palomba says.
Shoe repair, alone, would not support his family. The bulk of the business comes from repairing other leather — and strong textile — goods, such as purses and luggage.
“If it was just for shoes, I would have closed up (shop) years ago,” Palomba says.
For Vic Logsdon, owner of Vic’s Boot & Shoe, the business his dad launched in 1962 just became too tiring.
Now, a retailer who specializes in well-made boots and work shoes, Logsdon said his family’s original business was shoe repair.
His dad died in 1968, and Logsdon and his brother John Logsdon took over the business.
“My brother joined me when he had finished (his military) service, and he and I ran the business up until 4-1/2 years ago — Labor Day, 4-1/2 years ago,” Vic Logsdon said.
John Logsdon wanted to move to Tennessee, but the reason Vic Logsdon turned his shoe repair business into a shoe and boot store, was weariness.
“Honest? I was tired. It’s lots and lots of hours. We averaged between 500 and 600 (repairs) a week,” said Vic Logsdon, 61.
He has two children, and neither is interested in the business, he said. They’ve chosen other vocations.
His daughter, 35, is a computer programmer with Wachovia Bank.
His son, 31, is in food and service management at Wyndemere Country Club in East Naples.
No one to take over
If family members don’t take over, no one is sure who will take over shoe repair businesses within the next 20 years.
The U.S. Department of Labor no longer breaks out shoemaking as a distinct trade. That changed in 1998, when shoe and leather repair workers were dumped into the textile/apparel industry category.
In 1999, there were 15,610 shoe and leather repair workers nationwide, according to U.S. Labor Department statistics. The median hourly wage was $6.60.
By May 2004, the latest worker statistics available from the Labor Department, those employed as leather and shoe repair workers dropped to 10,000 — a decrease of more than 30 percent — each earning a median hourly wage of $9.29.
“This is not a business you get rich on,” said John “JT” Torregrossa, who owns Cobblery Shoe & Leather Repair in Fort Myers.
In Old World fashion, Torregrossa, 56, not only repairs shoes and leather, but will hand-make leather and suede goods: shoes, bags and even skirts, for customers who ask.
But he hasn’t taken in an apprentice since 1988, when he opened his Florida business.
“I have done that before. It doesn’t work. As soon as they learn, they leave. (They take) 10 percent of what you teach them and think they know it all,” Torregrossa says.
It takes a lifetime of learning. “I learned as a young lad,” Torregrossa says of his family’s leather and shoe business in Maryland. “We were kind of drafted at a very young age into the old man’s shop.” He can trace the family business back to his grandfather in Palermo, Sicily.
For awhile, it looked like his son might pick up the family tradition.
“My son opened up his own shoe repair business in Maryland. He had his own shop for a while,” Torregrossa said. Then, he shut it down and opened a gym.
No dirty hands
Jeanette Johnson, principal at the Lorenzo Walker Institute of Technology, said shoemaking and shoe repair isn’t taught at her vocational school because public schools must offer classes that meet a list of marketable occupational skills released by the state.
State officials are most interested in funding educational programs that draw high wages, high skills or are in high demand, Johnson said.
The school is limited to offering training for trades students can grow into.
Kids are not interested in shoe repair and it is difficult to find potential employees, says Luis Urbina, co-owner of Master Shoe Repair in Naples, next to Ruby Tuesday in Coastland Center mall.
Urbina said he would, willingly, train them, but children in the U.S. are not interested in this kind of work.
“They don’t want to get their hands dirty. They tell me that,” Urbina says.
An apprenticeship could take anywhere from one to five years, Palomba said.
At one time, Collier County education leaders recognized the need to continue the trade, and the school district bought a good deal of machinery on which to teach shoe and leather repair. That was about a decade go, but youngsters weren’t interested, Palomba said.
Even if the training was offered in public schools, Palomba said he wouldn’t want an 18-year-old in his shop.
Kids today are only interested in instant gratification, and do not have the maturity or commitment required for a trade, Palomba said.
It’s cheaper to buy a new shoe, even though it wouldn’t necessarily be a good shoe, he said.
It would cost about $500 to make a shoe for someone, and that’s too much in our “throw-away” society, Palomba said.
Shoe manufacturers may have to take on the responsibility for repairing their own goods, said Jessica Tesorone, whose family owns the new ilSandalo store in downtown Naples’ Third Street Plaza.
The store specializes in custom-fitted — not custom-made — sandals, that are crafted in the family factory in Italy. Sandals are priced from about $200 to $400. The family has two other stores: one in Palm Beach and one in Porto Rotondo in Sardinia.
If an ilSandalo sandal needs repair, the Tesorone family will send it off to the factory for a fee.
That may be the way of the future.