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Today's cobblers are sole survivors of changing times

| Friday, Dec. 2, 2011

Shoe repairman have to dig in their heels to cobble out a living in the 21st century.

It's no longer a day when stacks of thick-soled shoes created a career for craftsmen in shops that were sprinkled throughout neighborhoods.

"When we opened in 1947, there were nine shoemakers on Butler Street between 40th and 48th streets," says Lawrenceville's Bucky Palermo, who has worked at the trade for 65 years. "Now, there's me."

John Capaccio is owner of Fort Pitt Leather, a Hill District-based supply firm of repair products.

"You used to see two or three repairmen in every community," he says. "Now you see one for every two or three communities."

The decline of interest in dress shoes with soles and heels that needed upkeeping generally gets the blame for the falling number of those in shoe repair.

Don Rinaldi, president of the Shoe Service Institute of America, says in 1945 there were 58,942 shoe-repair shops in the United States, with 4,000 of them in Pennsylvania. That national number dropped to 15,000 in 1997 and has shrunk to 7,000 today.

Rinaldi, who runs a shoe-supply firm in New Jersey, says the decline was greatly fueled by the acceptance of athletic shoes in virtually all settings.

"When we were kids, we had two pairs of shoes -- black and brown -- that you wore for everything," he says. "When it became possible to wear tennis shoes for everything, you didn't need that. And you certainly didn't need to get tennis shoes repaired."

Rex Streno from Ullrich's, Downtown, agrees, but with a grimmer outlook.

"It is part of the decline of the U.S. in everything," he says. "No one wants to get dressed up for anything. You have dress-down Friday and then this other casual day and finally no one was wearing good shoes."

His company has been Downtown for 85 years and still maintains some clientele, but a good deal of it is because of location, he says.

"You have to be around where the lawyers and bankers are," he adds with a chuckle.

Part of the problem, the professionals agree, is that casual shoes often are priced so low that paying $50 in repairs does not make sense for a pair of $70 shoes.

"The uppers often wear out before the soles and heels," says Myron Wagner from the Lawrenceville shoe store that bears his name. In the past, he often would take a pair of shoes to Palermo to appease buyers who thought their leather soles wore out too quickly.

Doesn't happen anymore, he says.

Ron Mancuso from Mancuso's in Greensburg agrees with that part of the decline, but says there are "still plenty of people wearing Johnston & Murphy's or Allen Edmonds." Shoes from those two leaders in men's dress shoes often top $300 a pair.

Danny DeMarco, who works with his father at Northway Shoe and Repair in Ross, agrees there are "plenty of good shoes about" and contends part of the problem is that many repair professionals have fallen out of touch with the product. There are some cements, he says, that will do a better job than others on synthetic-soled shoes.

Repair professionals say it is vital to stay alert to other possibilities in their trade.

• Palermo, whose business is called Palermo's Shoe and Athletic Repair Center, once did team shoe work for 150 school districts and now concentrates on work for the Pittsburgh Steelers and Penguins as well as the University of Pittsburgh.

• DeMarco has established a sales area for hiking and work boots that dominates his business.

• Mancuso does a great deal of work on zippers, women's purses -- those prices, he says, "have gone out of sight" -- as well as work on leather jackets and even patches on hunting gear.

• Streno often will set up polishing stands at professional parties and conventions. "And we have a bunch of Steeler stuff at the front of the store that does pretty good," he adds.

The decline in shoe repair could even take a steeper drop. When the current owners finish their careers, it could mean the closing of the shop.

"Once a shop closes, that's it," Streno says. "There is no one there to open it up again."

Mancuso agrees.

"When I quit, that's it, I'm sure," he says. "No one is learning this business."

Like Streno, Mancuso's family has been in the business many years. His grandfather opened the first shop in Greenfield on 1903.

There is one positive side, though. When there are fewer repair technicians, there is more business.

"I'm busier than heck," Mancuso says.

It also can lead to some dramatic possibilities. DeMarco says the Brittany Spears tour came to the shop on the Pittsburgh stop to have zippers installed in their boots, making them easier to get off.

"We became Cobblers to the Stars," DeMarco says with a laugh.

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