A Cobbler's Gospel of Love

At the age of 83, James Fucile retired just recently. He had been repairing shoes for 60 years at the corner of Lexington Ave., and East 82nd St. He retired with great reluctance. He was giving up more than a job. James Shoe Repair was more than a business. For Mr. Fucile, it was a calling, a devotion, and a way of serving God. Ralph Gardner wrote a wonderful, moving profile of him for the Wall Street Journal a couple weeks ago. In very few words, he enabled you to feel the heart and soul of this modest cobbler, plying an age-old trade in the middle of the planet's most sophisticated city. His story calls out to all of us, in this holiday season, as an example of how humble manual labor can become a heartfelt way of serving other human beings and finding the deepest sense of meaning in life.

Fucile founded his shop right after returning from battle in Korea, and has remained at his location until deciding to move to Las Vegas, with his wife, to live near his son. He did not seek out attention for his work. Gardner approached him, repeatedly asking permission to write about him, yet Fucile politely declined. Finally, as his retirement approached, he relented. As the reporter spoke with him, customers continuously stuck their heads through the door to wish the tradesman well, tell him they were sad to see him leave, and thank him for his work.

He brought to his trade a caring, creative spirit that anyone who does business now should take as a crucial lesson. For him, the customer was all that mattered, not the profit. In a situation where he could replace a leather sole with an expensive duplicate, he chose rubber, because it would last longer--without being told to do so. It would serve the wearer better and save that customer a little money. He was a gift-giver in all aspects of his life. Gardner writes that Fucile once gave the reporter's babysitter a free turkey for Thanksgiving. When Manhattan street-cleaners came by with worn out shoes, he would give them a new pair from a collection of shoes abandoned by previous customers. What was given to him, he gave to someone else.

"Sometimes you get presents, and have enough, and want to give it away," he told Gardner. "I give to these people who sweep the streets. I don't get a dime. That's what it's all about really."

This is where Fucile's sense of purpose and meaning began to emerge in the story. Gardner asked him to describe whether or not he found shoe repair a fulfilling career.

"I loved every bit of it," he said. "It was a gift from God. I would never give it up. The people that I meet . . . God gave everybody a gift to love one another. And once you learn to love each other as brother and sister..."

He choked up.

"It is great. You can't explain."

Gardner points out how much this man's dedication cuts against the grain of a city obsessed with wealth and status. Fucile has surrendered willingly to a life entirely contrary to the culture around him, a spiritual depth he found in the simplest kind of work. Repairing shoes transformed him into a better man--and, as a result, he made life better for anyone who met him.

"One of these sweepers opened the door," Mr. Fucile said, of a recent encounter. "He said, 'Sir, you got a pair of shoes?' Something came over me--the effect on my body. He's my lost brother. There's only one religion in the world: love."

At this point, Gardner says he himself shed some tears.

"Love comes through these shoes," Fucile said.

Love comes through such wonderful reporting as well. Fucile, as much as anyone else you could name right now, exemplifies the holiday spirit, and the true meaning of Christianity. We should all remember his example, as inspiration, every day of the year, and in every walk of life.

Peter Georgescu is the author of The Constant Choice. He can be found at Good Reads.