Leader Blues

Monday, January 12, 2009

TOP STORY > > Local cobblers are on the mend

Leader staff writers

Cobbler, cobbler, mend my shoe.
Get it done by half-past two;
Stitch it up and stitch it down,
And then I’ll give you half a crown.
–Mother Goose nursery rhyme

For centuries, the most important accessory of any outfit has been the shoes. Most of us slip on our shoes on the way out of the door without a second thought. When a shoe wears out, people buy a new pair.
In today’s world, shoes are mass-produced in factories around the world, which has put shoemakers out of business. And cobblers aren’t too far behind. But with the current state of the economy, cobblers just might be making a comeback.
“Right now, it’s real good,” says Raphiel “Ray” Zarlingo, owner of Angelo’s Shoe and Boot Repair on West Main Street, describing his business.
“When others were trying to borrow money from the bank, I was expanding my business,” says Zarlingo. “I can tell the difference.” The shop has seen customers of all ages in recent months.
“There’s been some tight, lean times,” says Zarlingo. He has worked on everything from military boots to high heels and even leather purses. “When it comes to leather, we’ll try it,” he says.
Hunting boots that cost as much as $300 have been brought in for repair after just one hunting season of use. Zarlingo says he used to make shoes for people who had a hard time finding them, such as for orthopedic issues, but just doesn’t have the time anymore.
He learned the craft from his father, Angelo. Shoe repair runs on both sides of his family. His maternal grandfather was also a shoe repairman. Angelo’s was opened in 1960 and has been in several locations around Jacksonville.
When Zarlingo was 11, he began helping his father in the shop. “When my dad needed help, I was there,” he says. “When kids were playing baseball, I was working.”
Angelo’s Shoe Repair opened in 1960. The store moved to several locations around the city before settling at its current location 14 years ago at 406 W. Main St. in Jacksonville.
There are approximately 20 shoe repair shops in Arkansas. Angelo’s Shoe Repair is the only shop between Jacksonville and Jonesboro and one of only four in Pulaski County.
Charlie’s Shoe Repair at 3315 E. Kiehl Ave. in Sherwood is another one of the last cobblers in central Arkansas. Keith Martin bought the store in March from Charlie Hall who was at the Kiehl Avenue location for about 25 years.
Martin worked nights and weekends at Charlie’s for years after he retired from a career in law enforcement as a deputy with the Pulaski County sheriff.
On a recent visit to Martin’s workshop, he happily chatted with several customers while putting the last touches on his customers’ boots, sneakers and high heels.
To call Martin a cobbler is an understatement. “If you can get it through the door, I’ll take a look at it,” he said. He has repaired saddles, holsters, baseball gloves and even a sail.
Martin explained the machinery in his workshop, the walls of which are draped with dozens of pairs of shoes and smells of leather and polish.
He uses a 40-year-old curved needle machine that stitches fresh soles onto shoes. The machine looks its age, but Martin says it’s as good as ever.
Another machine that Martin relies on is called a finisher, which performs about a dozens varieties of sanding, buffing, shining, trimming, leather picking and more. These are the essential tools of Martin’s craft that he is eager to share.
There were once dozens of shops like Charlie’s in the area, according to Martin. He thinks the demand for a cobbler faded when people began making more money. People can just buy a new pair of shoes instead of fixing them, he said.
Martin has customers who come from as far as northern Arkansas because they can’t easily find a cobbler. He even takes mail orders from a couple who retired in Florida and were customers of Charlie’s for years. Martin says today’s economy is helping his business probably because people want to repair their shoes instead of just buying a new pair.
“I’m working seven days a week just to keep up,” Martin said.
Martin says that it takes about a week for him to complete an order, but it would take longer if he weren’t putting in the extra hours.
“This is a family business,” Martin says.
His wife, Sandra, is a co-owner and his two daughters, Ashley, 19, and Amber, 16, work with their father in his shop regularly.
Perhaps there is a bright future in this fading trade after all.
But definitely, Charlie seems to have left his store in very good hands.