ASTORIA — The shoe repair business was very different when Domenico Falco first got started in it decades ago.
Falco, now 76, was just 9 years old when he started learning the trade, including how to cut, shape, and sew the leather to craft a shoe, as well as how to patch a sole, fix a heel or add taps to make them last longer.
"After the Second [World] War things were bad, very bad," said Falco, who grew up in Naples, Italy, in an era when certain materials were scarce and nothing was ever thrown out. If a nail was bent, he would use a hammer to straighten it out so it wouldn't go to waste.
"We needed the nail again," he said. "We would use it three times."
Now, after running his shoe repair shop on Steinway Street in Astoria for nearly 45 years, he's leaving the business. Falco's Shoe Repair — where a "first class" shoe shine costs $5, according to a sign on the wall — closed its doors to customers this weekend as its owner enters a somewhat reluctant retirement.
"I feel bad to retire," said Falco, a slight man with a heavy Italian accent, who lives with his wife near LaGuardia Airport. He underwent triple-bypass heart surgery four months ago, prompting his decision to stop working, though he wishes he could stay on.
"It's not my style," he explained of retirement. "It's boring."
Falco immigrated to the United States in 1965, buying the shop at 25-02 Steinway St. three years later.
In the decades since, he's seen a change in the way people regard their shoes.
"The people don’t treat their shoes no more," he said. "[But] shoes are very important for the feet. They think if they buy plastic shoes, they save money. No, at the end of the day, they cost money."
He's watched his business shrink over the years, as customers stopped buying high-quality leather shoes and opted instead for cheaply made, disposable materials, like plastic and rubber.
"I don’t remember the last time I actually repaired a shoe," said Tony Meloni, a Community Board 1 member who runs Immigration Advocacy Services a few doors down from the repair shop and has known Falco for 25 years, referring to him as "the mayor of Astoria."
"It's one of those things that we don’t even think about," he added.
Meloni is now helping Falco find a home for his machinery, inherited when he bought the shop, including hulking pieces of equipment used to stitch, stretch, buff and shine shoes that Falco estimates are nearly a century old.
"This would be a great example of what American machinery was around the turn of the century," Meloni said, noting they hope a collector or historical organization might be interested in taking the appliances. "There's nothing left like this."
The machines still work, Falco said, and better than most manufactured today.
"The mechanic, he told me, 'Dom, if anybody comes to you and offers you a brand-new machine, plus they give you a hundred dollars, don’t change,'" Falco said, lamenting how they just don't make things like they used to.
"Like a car," he said. "Like shoes. Like everything else."