The Art of Good Cobbling

My earliest memory of a cobbler’s shop, a term my younger self wouldn’t have known to connect to shoe repair, is from Sept. 11, 2001. I was selling ads for my high school yearbook, and we were at our first stop of the day, The Cobbler Shoppe. I’d been inside the store a couple times with my parents, looking to buy dress shoes, but on this day, my ad sales partner and I were ushered to the back room to speak with the owner.

In my memory, the owner is holding a woman’s dress shoe in one hand, as we all look up at the small black-and-white television hanging from a ceiling corner above his workbench. “Crazy things going on in the world today,” he says, and then hands us a signed check.

The Cobbler Shoppe was my first cobbler shop experience, but I didn’t discover shoe repair until nearly five years later. I don’t remember the specific shoe that was the source of my revelation, but I do remember the sound it made: a high-pitched screech-squeak, emitted every time I stepped on a hard surface. Usually the sound came from just one shoe in a pair, which gave my walk the rhythm of a poorly oiled, not-quite-round wheel: Screeech!-squeak—clomp. Screeech!-squeak—clomp.

A college junior, I had not yet learned to recognize that sound as a symptom of a worn-down heel, because I did not yet know that shoes were things that could be treated rather than simply used and replaced.

My memory grows fuzzy after the sound—did a friend turn me on to the local cobbler? Or did I finally look at the soles of my shoes and make a logical leap to repair them? Either way, the judgment on the cobbler’s face when he saw my ragged heels was something I vowed I’d never deserve again.

Now, each time I move, finding a good cobbler is as important to me as finding a good dentist. And what makes a good cobbler? Sometimes it’s about quality work; other times it’s about atmosphere. When I lived in Washington, D.C., I had a cobbler called Ponytail, whose U Street shop was always populated by kindly old black men who wished me a “blessed day” as I left. I loved Ponytail’s shop so much that I kept going back even after I realized that his shoe repair work could be hit-or-miss.

Ponytail died before I left D.C., and I had to find a new cobbler. This one, tucked into a ground floor corner of Union Station, did an excellent heel but always told me the work would be done in one week, when it would actually take two, sometimes three. He was apparently overrun with customers—lots of men paying for while-you-wait leather soles at Union Station. Once, when I arrived at the store on the designated day to find my shoes still sole-less on this man’s shelf, I became so angry that I told him he was irresponsible and inconsiderate and a poor manager of his business and that I would not be coming back. I still have unresolved feelings about that moment—guilt for speaking in anger coupled with self-righteousness certainty of my underlying rightness. I never had to confront that feeling, because shortly after the incident, I moved to Corvallis, a town that I believe is blessed with a truly superb cobbler shop: Sedlak’s Boots & Shoes.

The first few times I went to Sedlak’s, I felt somehow unworthy. The store felt like the kind of place you’d go to outfit yourself for a classically American working-class job, steel-toed boots required, but I was there to drop off a pair of fake leather slip-ons. Sturdy plaid shirts hung among the leather shoes on the walls, and blues music, carefully curated by the shop’s owner, played over the speakers. I didn’t understand all these shoes, all this leather. Even the quality of light was like leather, golden and warm.

But as with any good leather, the store softened with time. I now look forward to the otherworldly feeling I get when stepping through Sedlak’s doors. And the quality of shoe repair and service can’t be beat. On my most recent visit, I finally got fitted, and I was blown away by the care and attention Kate Reisdorf paid to my feet. First, she had me stand on a high-tech foot computer (the one piece of incongruent technology visible in the store); I learned my right heel is my highest foot pressure point. Next, she took both sitting and standing measurements of my feet using a Brannock Device, the shoe-fitting apparatus you may never have seen if you’ve only shopped for shoes online or at big box stores. I learned that my toes are the same length as my arches, and that my arches stretch two sizes when I stand.

Reisdorf says most people are wearing the wrong size shoe for their feet. And if not the wrong size, they’re probably wearing the wrong type of shoe for their toes, or for their toe-to-arch ratio, or for their arches, or for their heels. When putting customers into the right shoes, Reisdorf is like a doctor writing a prescription: she takes measurements, makes observations, and asks diagnostic questions until she can get to the bottom of the problem and prescribe a solution. Then she waits for the satisfaction when her patients come back weeks later, feeling better.

Reisdorf has worked at Sedlak’s for eight years. The store’s owner, Paul Mumford, prides himself on the longevity of his employees. “I hire and train and they stay,” he says.

The shop’s cobbler, Greg Goff, has repaired leather goods in the back room for 21 years. Goff learned shoe repair after being “displaced” from timberwork in 1996. He was motivated in part by a desire to get into building saddles. He’d been riding rodeo on the weekends; when he applied for and got a job at Sedlak’s, he had a broken leg from riding a bucking bronco.

I spent over an hour with Goff one morning as he worked on shoes. Each pair typically takes from an hour and a half to two hours, he says. The work is different for every pair, so it doesn’t get boring, but his hands, one of which is missing two fingers (an old timber injury, as the worst he’s gotten from shoe repair is stitches), get sore from pulling apart shoe glue and nails.

Goff sees all kinds of shoes, from cowboy boots, which usually have a good cork filler, to women’s dress shoes, which have only a very thin fabric padding, to work boots covered in cow manure, which he kindly requests that you please take a hose to before bringing in, to my-dog-bit-a-hole-in-my-shoe patchwork projects, which are the most challenging, in part because Goff is partially color blind and sometimes needs help matching the color of the patch.

More and more, Goff gets non-leather shoes, typically vinyl or polyurethane, which are more difficult to repair; they require a special primer for a new heal to bond.

“Shoe manufacturers don’t want you to fix your stuff,” he says. “They want you to buy new stuff.”

But Goff’s pet peeve is not those vinyl shoes; it’s the people who buy leather shoes, don’t take care of them, and then “grease” them before bringing them in. He likens this practice to only brushing your teeth the day you go to the dentist. The cobbler, like your dentist, can always tell when you haven’t been diligent in your care.

Goff won’t take a pair of shoes unless he believes he can fix them. He takes pride in his work, and the store’s reputation. They have customers who ship their boots in for repair all the way from California. “I like to consider myself a craftsman,” he says.

Sedlak’s has been in operation for nearly 75 years. The owner, Paul Mumford, bought the store from the 84-year-old Alford Sedlak in 1987. Mumford first entered the foot business while living in Berkley. He was on a wrestling scholarship, but “that didn’t buy pizza and beer and date night,” so he answered an ad and began working nights making sandals. Later, he studied as a pedorthist, learning to diagnose and treat foot problems.

Mumford has a Zen sensibility about the future of his trade.

“I see this business as kind of like a candle burning, you know?” he says. “Eventually there will be no more candle to burn. That will be it.”

He says he got into shoes because he likes helping people. He wants to help you correct the mistakes you make with your feet. If you let him, he can really help you. But now, he says, “[People are] so used to helping themselves. Big box stores—they don’t help you. You do your own thing. That’s a perpetuation of a mistake.”

His comment makes me think of something Goff said when I asked him when people should condition their shoes. “I don’t know, whenever they look dry,” he said. “If you don’t treat ‘em, they get distressed, then you end up with cracks, and cracks turn into holes.”

Treating your shoes, or treating your feet: it starts with simply paying attention. Notice when your shoes are cracked; notice when your feet hurt. If you don’t notice the symptoms, you’ll soon find holes.

By Maggie Anderson