Outlook is dim for the quality shoe and the guy who can fix it.
The clock is ticking at shoe repair shops around the region. In most of them, men in their 70s and 80s work alone in stained aprons, maneuvering shoes against trimmers and finishers, stitching, gluing, polishing and nailing to finish those boots by Tuesday, those pumps by Saturday.
Hundreds of shoes await them, spilling from bins and shelves — scuffed, torn, sole-less, heel-less, dog-chewed and broken — with no apprentices in sight.
Among roughly 25 cobblers working full time in Allegheny and adjacent counties, two are 90 and only a handful are younger than 65.
The Shoe Service Institute of America reports that shoe repair shops have dwindled from 100,000 in the 1930s to 15,000 in 1997 to about 5,000 today. The industry may be facing extinction, but business is booming for the cobblers who remain.
“I work seven days a week, and I cannot keep up,” said Tony DeMarco at Northway Shoe Repair in Ross.
“I’m here seven days a week just to keep up,” said Chuck Carlson at Fox Chapel Shoe Service.
“I work seven days a week, and I’m still behind,” said Bill Wells at Charles the Cobbler in McMurray. “There was a young guy in Washington I couldn’t talk into staying in the business. Now all his work is coming my way.”
At 81, Mr. Wells thinks he is the only cobbler left in Washington County. Efforts to find another bear him out.
A club of survivors
Old-school cobblers call themselves shoemakers because shoemakers trained them as boys, usually a grandfather or father. And the shoes were always made of leather.
Cobblers say they are demoralized by the onslaught of badly made shoes from developing countries — vinyl and rubber shoes, some of one piece, shoes held together by adhesives instead of stitches, soles made of materials that shred too easily.
Mr. Wells produced an example from his workshop — a black patent leather pump whose sole flapped open to reveal what looked like a three-layer cake made of lemon and cinnamon wafers.
He said adhesives and a primer should ensure that “I never see these again.”
Later that day, a fine pair of shoes arrived with customer Gary Crossan, leather work boots that looked solid enough to have survived the Battle of Stalingrad. But one was digging into the top of his foot.
“I’ve had these shoes 15 years and now this crease,” Mr. Crossan said.
Mr. Wells went to his workshop and brought out a set of iron bunion pliers.
“Lightning Fulton,” he said, naming the brand. “You can still get these.”
He opened the tool, which looks like tongs with a ball-and-ring on one end. He inserted the ball into the shoe and kneaded the crease to persuade it to even out.
Seventy years ago, Mr. Wells was a sixth-grader with a paper route in Monaca. His last stop of the day was a cobbler’s shop. On winter mornings, he hung around to warm up and the cobbler put him to work. He started out sweeping, then he began learning the trade.
He always liked cars and working with his hands, so he shifted to the automotive industry. Then it became more about computers than mechanics. In 1986, when Charles Cancilla put his shoe repair shop in South Hills Village up for sale, Mr. Wells bought it. It has been in its current location in the Krebs Professional Center since 2001.
Now that competition isn’t an issue, shoe repairmen are like a club of survivors, a little like family. “Everyone knows each other,” Mr. Wells said.
And some really are family.
Mario Ulizzi, 44, who just celebrated 20 years at Sewickley Shoe Repair, is the son-in-law of Mario Gigliotti, who has owned Squirrel Hill Shoe Repair for 40 years. Ross LoCastro, owner of Mount Lebanon Shoe Repair, is Mr. Gigliotti’s nephew. Gabriel Fontana, who owns Gabriel Shoe Repair, Downtown, is the ex-husband of Mr. Gigliotti’s sister-in-law.
Mr. Gigliotti’s brother-in-law is Frank Ambrosio, 75, owner of Crafton Shoe Repair for 51 years.
“My uncle [Mario] taught me when I was 13,” Mr. LoCastro said. “I went after school to shine shoes and it took off from there. I swore I was not going to do it the rest of my life, and here I am at 54. I like what I do.”
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It’s been a good living, too, he said.
“I come across younger guys who say they want to learn, but they really don’t when they see it’s not going to be easy.”
“It’s a lot of time and hard work,” said Mr. DeMarco, “and it’s not the cleanest job, but somebody has to do it, right?”
Mr. Gigliotti, 72, trained all the younger cobblers in his family, including his son, Mario, 48, who works with him, and several others who have shops in the area. He came from Italy at age 13.
”It’s been fun,” he said. “Most of my customers are still buying the good shoes. By buying a better shoe, you can get it repaired over and over.”
He said he doesn’t plan to retire because he is attached to long-time customers. “I wouldn’t know what to do with myself if I retired.”
Mr. Ulizzi said Mr. Gigliotti is “an impressive influence” on the local industry. “I can still hear his voice telling me how to cut a sole.”
‘Not one kid will sign up’
Downtown once was lousy with cobblers. Horne’s and Kaufmann’s department stores each had at least a dozen at one time. Three active shops remain — Joe’s Shoe Service on Fourth Avenue, Ullrich Shoe Repair on Liberty Avenue and Gabriel Shoe Repair on Forbes Avenue.
Rex Streno and Paul Manno work together at Ullrich, a century-old business that carries the name of its original owners.
“I was trained by my father-in-law and six guys who worked here,” said Mr. Streno, 60. “This place was like a factory. Now it’s just me and Paul, who’s 70, and part time.”
Gabriel Fontana, 78, began training in Italy at age 7 and has been in business in Pittsburgh for more than 40 years. He and one employee are tucked into a tiny shop that is “busy all the time,” he said. “I will keep working as long as I feel good.”
The future of the trade depends both on the longevity of the old-school guys and on new blood, but several cobblers said they have tried and can’t entice anyone young to learn it.
One of them, Ron Mancuso, 67, an eighth-generation cobbler in Greensburg, said he talks to guidance counselors at high schools and vocational schools, “and not one kid will sign up to learn. There used to be five cobblers in Greensburg and I’m the last one left.”
Seven years ago, a cobbler did find an apprentice in Mr. Carlson, who at 39 is the youngest of those interviewed for this story.
Mike Palermo was persuaded by his family to retire, but he didn’t want to end the run of Fox Chapel Shoe Service. He was friends with Mr. Carlson’s uncle, and Mr. Carlson was bouncing among jobs trying to find his passion.
“Mike took me under his wing, trained me, and I fell in love with this,” Mr. Carlson said, taking a break from the finishing machine one day. “This is more like play than work to me.”
He was a few years into the business when cobblers in Highland Park and New Kensington both ended their runs, “and we saw a huge surge then,” he said. “This place is crazy, and right now it’s just my wife and I” doing repairs. Sydney Carlson, a seamstress, stitches shoes and mends fabric purses and jackets.
The shop, in Fox Chapel Plaza in O’Hara, is shoehorned between two businesses, a pocket-sized factory with vintage machinery that keeps on ticking, including a Landis K outsole stitcher from 1942.
“I love working with leather,” Mr. Carlson said, “and I wish there was more of it. Some shoes seem to be made to be unfixable, but I hate to tell someone, ‘I can’t make it work.’ I will do everything I can to fix anything.
“The look in their eyes when they pick up their shoes is what drives me everyday. I’m trying to keep their shoes alive.”
Diana Nelson Jones: email@example.com or 412-263-1626. Twitter@dnelsonjones.