Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled heels

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Wednesday, April 01, 2009

ShoeRepair Waiting for a new sole at Derek’s Shoe Repair in Portland. The cobbler business is booming.

STATEWIDE Need those Italian leather loafers or well-worn hiking boots resoled? Don’t be surprised if you wait three weeks for the repair.

Backups that long at Sedlak’s Boots & Shoes – the sole surviving repair outfit in Corvallis – forced owner Paul Mumford out of retirement in February to rescue his cobbler from a mounting pile of fatigued footwear.

“He was just swamped,” says Mumford, who used to also own Sedlak’s stores in Lincoln City, McMinnville and Eugene. “We’re the last ones standing in town.”

Shrinking, yet countercyclical, the shoe repair business is now booming for Oregon’s survivors. As the economy tanked last fall, customers looked to squeeze more life out of old wares, increasing demand for these services. Year-over-year repair sales are up 20% to 30%, many area stores report, paralleling national trends.

Entrenched cobblers have also gained market share as mom-and-pop rivals retire without replacements and shutter their shops. As a percentage of its total workforce, Oregon has the country’s fifth-highest concentration of shoe and leather workers/repairers, according to a 2007 Bureau of Labor Statistics report.

When Sedlak’s opened downtown in 1944, Corvallis supported 11 cobblers. The college town even had its own nine-month shoe repair school through the early 1990s. Now only Sedlak’s remains, since its only Corvallis competitor closed in September. The U.S. has about 7,000 repair shops left, compared to 120,000 during the Great Depression, according to the Shoe Service Institute of America. The industry shrank alongside the rise of mass-produced, made-in-China shoes, with glued-on bottoms instead of stitched insoles, often cheaper to dispose of and replace than repair.

“We turn a lot of people away, if the shoe’s dead, not worth our time and a waste to invest in,” says Marty Krogh, owner of Art & Sole Comfort Footwear in North Portland. He planned to focus on retailing high-quality clogs and boots when the store opened five years ago. But since last fall, demand pushed Krogh to say yes to more repairs.

“People notice the problems in their shoes a lot faster here” because of the weather, says Henry Roehr, who runs Derek’s Shoe Repair in Portland. The downtown area had a dozen repair shops when Roehr entered the trade 13 years ago. At least two-thirds of those have since closed.

Customers regularly travel from as far as the Oregon Coast to Sedlak’s and to Olde Towne Shoe Repair, the only shop left in neighboring Albany. Olde Town weekly takes in about 100 repair jobs, nearly double what it handled this time last year.

“The work is as steady as heck,” says shop owner Larry Lindsey. “Who else has got that claim now?”

LAURA MCCANDLISH

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