The Changing Footprint of the Shoe Repair Industry

Never one to be accused of being a shoestanista, it was with some trepidation that I walked into the 103rd annual Shoe Service Institute of America's (SSIA) National Conference in Chicago last weekend, (think shop repair shops) wearing my eight-year-old Peter Fox round-toed Spectator mules with a stretched out area to accommodate my 25-year-old bunion.

Until two weeks ago, the SSIA and the challenges of the ever shrinking shoe repair industry were not something I fretted about. But that was before the sole of my beloved Peter Fox Spectator mules became unglued.

Having recently moved to a new neighborhood, I had no idea where the nearest shoe repair shop was located Turns out that's a national trend. Shoe repair shops are hard to find and getting harder. The number has dwindled down to a mere 7,000. In 1968 there were 68,000.

On top of that, finding a shoe repair shop that is willing to repair shoes with molded bottoms and hollow heels is another hurdle. According to the folks attending the 103rd SSIA, a significant percentage of shop repair folks haven't kept up with the times and have no interest in learning how to repair these newfangled shoes that have been around since the 1980s.

Chances are if you walk into their shop, they will say, "I can't fix it." Talk about shooting your business in the foot. These shop owners have literally chased customers out the door and convinced a generation of shoe wearers that it doesn't make sense to repair a shoe when you can just as easily go out and buy a new pair.

As a result, a generation of shoppers thinks of shoes as a disposable, inexpensive commodity that needs to be traded in as frequently as they exchange cell phones and laptops.

The SSIA wants to change people's attitudes and one of the industry's key evangelists is 75-year old Robert DiRinaldo of Trafford, PA. If the shoe industry has a super star, it's undoubtedly Robert DiRinaldo. Three years ago, DiRinaldo won the Grand Silver Cup for shoe repair at the 100th annual SSIA conference. It was a competition billed as the "best of the best."

DiRinaldo thinks it's insane for any shoe repair shop owner to turn away business. "They have to stop saying they can't fix it," he said. " Of course they can fix it. They just have to learn how."

On the day I needed to take my shoes into the shoe shop, I had memorized the address and headed toward 4th Street in the Dinkytown neighborhood of Minneapolis...that's the positively 4th Street of Bob Dylan fame. I drove up and down the block several times but couldn't find Fast Eddie's shoe repair. A quick phone call and the owner Jim explained that he was inside the arcade because it was too expensive to have a storefront on the street.

In chatting with Jim I mentioned that the shoe repair shop in my old neighborhood had closed. When I told him the location, he shared that the owner, a young guy for the shoe industry -- he was in his 50s -- had died of cancer. Jim then told me that there were only about 100 shoe repair shops left in Minnesota and the majority are owned by guys in their 70s and 80s. He added, "No one is entering the field."

On hearing this news, a wave of sadness rushed over me for the soon to be lost art of shoe repair. I hadn't felt this nostalgic since the day I walked up and down the cake mix aisle in the grocery store searching for a bundt cake mix, only to discover that Betty Crocker and Pillsbury had discontinued manufacturing them.

While I have the skills to bake a bundt by scratch, it hit me that one day, in the not so distant future, I could be packing up my shoes and outsourcing them for repair. I took a second, closer look at my shoe's newest best friend Jim. I needed some assurances that he wasn't going to be abandoning his outpost anytime soon. Years ago, Jim saw the writing on the wall. He diversified. He is one of the country's leading experts in repairing Birkenstocks. This is good. I own three pair of Birkenstocks!

Of course, the majority of shoe repair men can't all become Birkenstocks experts. No worries. There is another option. The message of this year's SSIA conference: The future is C.Ped. C.Ped. stands for Certified Pedorthist. The field of Pedorthics is the study of footwear and supplemental devices for footwear; including orthoses, prostheses, shoe modifications, shoe fitting and shoe fabrication.

The SSIA is encouraging all of its members to become a certified C.Ped. For cobblers, it's a business opportunity the likes they haven't seen since WWII. Think 20 million diabetics with feet problems. Think aging baby boomers with bunions, plantar fasciitis, spurs, and hammertoes. Think Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements.

After leaving the conference in suburban Chicago, I spent the day with my college friend Paula. We took a five mile walk in a lovely forest preserve but near the four mile marker, Paula had to take off her shoes. Her feet were killing her.

"Funny you should mention that," I began.