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Cobbler Craft Dying Out As Rents Rise, Cheap Shoes Proliferate, Skills Wane

By Nicole Levy | August 28, 2015 8:52am | Updated on August 30, 2015 9:59pm

There were about 20 pairs of shoes awaiting pick-up on Tuesday afternoon at A.K. Shoe Repair, a 15-year-old shop about to close for business. 

"I've been texting [customers] for months already," said store owner Albert P., who declined to give his full last name. "Whoever has shoes, pick them up. Otherwise everything goes to the garbage."

A.K. Shoe Repair isn't the first East Village shoe repair shop to get booted from the neighborhood. In the face of surging rents, David's Shoe Store and Alex Shoe Repair shuttered their businesses over the past two years, and East Village Shoe Repair relocated to Bushwick, where it proudly kept its old name.

Across the city, experienced cobblers are closing the doors of their small businesses as they see their rents rise, potential customers buying new shoes rather than repairing old ones, and a dearth of apprentices interested in learning their trade.

In the case of A.K. Shoe Repair, Albert P. says his landlord plans to more than double the monthly rent for his space at 350 E. 9th St. from $2,000 to $4,500. Adding that to the cost of electricity and gas, $500 a month, and the price of a month's supplies, $1,500, the price of keeping his business open would amount to roughly $270 a day. With those expenses, it's no easy task to turn a profit charging no more than $20 for rubber heel replacements. 

Albert

Albert P.'s shoe repair shop will soon close for good. (DNAinfo/Nicole Levy)

"Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of shoe repair shops close," said Emily Putterman, a shoe-making instructor whose students at Pratt Institute and the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan often take their shoes to repair shops for soling.

"It’s because women are buying very cheap shoes online, and when they fall apart, they don’t bring them in to be [re-]soled,” she explained. "If their shoes fall apart [and] they’re cheaply made, they’ll buy new shoes."

Said Albert P.: "I feel sorry even charging those people because [the shoes] are a piece of garbage." In search of evidence, he lifted the inside lining of a buckled white shoe on his store counter, exposing a papery material beneath.

"They put paper inside!" he said.

In Greenwich Village, shoe repairman Yakub Maksumov sets his prices with respect to the quality of his clientele's shoes.

"People buy $1,000 shoes, people buy $10 boots. If the boots cost $10, how are you going to charge $20?” Maksumov said.

Even with this flexible pricing model and the adjustment of the shop's price list in proportion to growing expenses, Maksumov predicts that the number of shoe repair stores in New York City will dwindle significantly over the next decade.

"My generation of cobblers, they're not passing on [the trade]," said the cobbler who learned his craft from his father in Russia and 20 years ago opened his shop at 229 Sullivan St. "The future is not coming."

Yakub

Yakub Maksumov has been repairing shoes at 229 Sullivan Street for the past 20 years.

At Pavlos Shoe Repair on the Upper East Side, Michael Papoutsakis is a now-rare example of a first-generation American carrying on the family business.

"It’s not the most appealing apprenticeship to do," he said. "I knew the business because I grew up in here, but it wasn’t what I went to [college] for.”

Michael

Michael Papoutsakis learned his trade from his father, Pavlos.

Papoutsakis' teacher, his father Pavlos, swapped the design and construction of new shoes for repair work when he came to the United States from Crete in the 1960s, recognizing a demand for the service. (The surname Papoutsakis closely resembles the Greek word for shoes, papoútsia.)

His son says that demand will never fade in Manhattan, where New Yorkers get around on foot and appreciate that uncommon find, a comfortable shoe. 

"If you like the shoe and it's comfortable, you repair it — you might not find a replacement," he said.

His family's 42-year-old business offers customers more than just your typical resoling. On Tuesday at lunchtime, a steady stream of women requested everything from the replacement of velcro straps on a pair of sandals to the cleaning of a stained leather bag to the mending of a purse zipper. The most detail-oriented and wealthiest of Papoutsakis' customers like to protect their investments with services like winterizing, he said.

They pay significantly more than they did in 1980, when New York magazine reported that Pavlos Papoutsakis charged $18.95 for the restoration of a classic men's lace-up shoes to their original condition. Today, that would cost about $90, his son estimated.

Papoutsakis said his family's business stands to benefit from the fact that demand for its services remains steady as the ranks of old-school shoe repairmen shrink.

”The thing is this trade is not being taught here in the States," he said. 

Putterman, who has spent the past 28 years trying to teach Americans the value of a well-crafted shoe, is grateful that shops like Pavlos still exist

"Thank God for Michael over at Pavlos, because his father is a shoemaker from the old country, and we’re losing that. Most shoe repair guys they don’t really know how to put a shoe together from beginning to end," she said.

What unites Albert P., Yakub Maksumov and Pavlos Papoutsakis, beyond their line of work, is their knowledge of European shoe design. 

"There’s a difference between a shoe repair shop where they’re just taking the outer sole, sanding them down on the Landis machine, and putting a layer of leather or rubber on the bottom," Putterman said. "What we’re losing are the old-time shoemakers that know how to make the shoes from scratch."

The solution according to Putterman? Establish more trade schools where students can learn things like a shoe's proper pitch differential, or the difference in elevation between its heel and forefoot.

"It’s a craft," Papoutsakis said of his profession. "You have to care for it. You can’t just slop something on a pair of shoes.”