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LES Cobblers Share Secrets to a Long Shoe Life

By Serena Solomon | November 20, 2012 7:05am

LOWER EAST SIDE — When the two men who operate Alex Shoe Repair on First Avenue tell you to steer clear of dog droppings and salt on the sidewalk this winter, you would be wise to listen up.

With five generations of combined cobbling experience, Shalom Dekhkanov and Mario Emmanuel know a thing or two about how to keep shoes in shape during the harsh winter months.

"It is killing the leather," said Dekhkanov, who works in the store with his cousin Emmanuel, of the perils facing pedestrians trying to navigate things like dog poop and salt spread out on the sidewalk to melt snow and ice. "They destroy it."

Dekhkanov's father was a cobbler, and Emmanuel followed both his father and his grandfather into the business.

The Lower East Side and East Village are dotted with numerous shoe-repair shops that draw on generations of cobbling knowledge, skill and passion for their craft. As shoe styles shift from summer to winter — aided by a struggling economy, in which customers choose to fix their shoes rather than buy new ones — cobblers are in the midst of busiest time of the year as they ready footwear for winter.

"People walk. In Manhattan, they walk more and they don't drive much," noted Erik Koynoe, of Erik Shoe Repair on Grand Street, giving a simple reason as to why the city goes through more shoes than any other. "Different cities, they drive more and don't walk as much."

Koynoe works from his hole-in-the-wall storefront, near Essex Street, which is packed with shoes on the mend, products and equipment — such as his manually-operated Singer sewing machine from 1929.

A combination of wet weather, concrete and sidewalk salt can create a tough environment for the city's shoes, he explained.

"If you see some salt stains, you can use some white vinegar to wash them out," he said, offering an inexpensive home remedy for blemished leather.

All three cobblers agreed that shoring up shoes as soon as they are purchased is ideal for surviving the winter.

"If you have a leather bottom, put on a rubber protector," said Koynoe, of the approximately $25, which will extend the life of any pair of shoes.

He also has plenty of advice for Gotham's shoe-crazed ladies. 

"You have to build it up to protect it," he said, noting that he can add tips to the pointy ends of a woman’s heels to protect it against collisions with concrete and cobblestone streets, which are always treacherous for any stiletto-wearer.

Galoshes, a rubber overshoe that was popular in previous decades, are still being sold to customers of all ages, Dekhkanov added.

Starting with a quality brand is also another recommendation from Koynoe. He singled out Aldo, Florsheim, Allen Edmonds and Mephisto as value for money brands that had both superior leather and craftsmanship.

"You pay more for the name, but it looks good," said Koynoe, of expensive and high-end brands such as Prada and Chanel.

Dekhkanov suggested looking at a shoe's country of origin to indicate a well-made pair, mentioning Spain, Brazil, America and Romania as some of the best.

As for Dekhkanov and Koynoe, they attribute their shoe skills to their Russian heritage.

"[Russians] didn't have all the machines, but they do a beautiful job by hand — everything," said Dekhkanov, of how he leaned the craft in his home country while it was still a part Soviet Union. "Everything by hand is a beautiful thing — it lasts longer, it's stronger.

"In that time, maybe it was an art form," added Dekhkanov, who came to the United States in 1991.

He said he still enjoyed working with his hands, recalling one pair of shoes he took in that was mauled by a dog three separate times.

"The dog chewed the whole back of the shoe and the heel. There was nothing left," he said, noting he had to match new leather to the shoe and completely rebuild the heel — three times over.

"I said, ‘God bless your dog, lady," he joked of the returning business.

For Dekhkanov, given the knowledge and experience passed on from his father, his passion for shoe repair is irreplaceable.

"You have to like the job," he said. "If you don't like the job, you are not going to be a good cobbler."