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Saving Soles



Published January 10, 2007 at 5:00 p.m.

In modern-day minds, the term "cobbler" is likely to conjure the image of a feudal peasant mending shoes with a wooden mallet. The trade sounds anachronistic in an age of knee-jerk consumerism, when everything from winter coats to widescreen TVs are replaced the moment a zipper breaks or a knob falls off.

But Onion River Cobbler Steve Hopkins is busily keeping alive the age-old trade of leather and shoe repair. Admittedly, his quaint cubbyhole of a shop on West Canal Street in Winooski seems a throwback to simpler, more frugal times. An oversized pocket watch with Roman numerals hangs from a fob above two industrial-sized "stitchers," or shoe-sewing machines, both of which date back to the 1940s. The shop is lined with shelves cluttered with round tins of shoe polish, spools of colored thread, bolts of uncut leather and piles of wrinkled boots, many of which are missing laces.

Steve - he insists on a first-name designation, not "Hopkins this and Hopkins that" - is a stocky 56-year-old with ruddy cheeks, a bushy, white Fu Manchu, sausage-like fingers and a friendly but no-nonsense attitude, as evidenced by the sign that greets customers: "Poor planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part."

When I arrive, Steve is sitting in the front window at an old black Singer stitching a new zipper into a worn leather jacket. The '50s sewing machine is about the same age as Steve, and is the one he learned to sew on. In one corner "Blockhead," a chunky, beige 9-year-old pit bull/boxer mix, hardly budges as customers come and go, even when a man in a three-piece suit offers her a bone. "She's a sweetheart of a dog," Steve says, in an accent that slightly betrays his Mahwah, New Jersey, roots. "She just doesn't like other dogs."

This is Steve's 22nd year as a cobbler, and business is brisk. His shop is open five days a week - except in the fall, when the avid bow hunter often takes time off in the woods. In fact, watching stoically from one wall are the mounted heads of a black bear and a whitetail buck, both of which are flanked by some two-dozen bow-hunting awards.

Usually, the Onion River Cobbler isn't picky about the jobs he'll take on - in the past, he's made leather berets, belts, tool pouches, even clothing for customers. Like any repairman, though, Steve reserves the right to refuse the more unsavory jobs. He turned down one guy who wanted a pair of vomit-encrusted shoes shined. Ditto a woman who asked him to clean a pair of skates coated in cat pee.

"She was angry about it but, hey, life's too short, and you can't take it with you," he says. "I've never seen a hearse with a luggage rack."

SEVEN DAYS: What's the most common work people come in for?

STEVE HOPKINS: Soles and heels. But I fix everything. I put zippers in coats, pocketbooks, boots and luggage. Sometimes it's not cost-effective to put new zippers in, but I can fix them enough to make them work. I make belts for customers and do general shoe repair. That sort of stuff.

SD: A lot of people these days would never think of going to a cobbler.

SH: That's because they've never had anything fixed. I still have people coming in and asking me how long I've been here because I don't do any advertising, except in the Yellow Pages. It's all word of mouth. That's what's kept me going for the last 22 years.

SD: How did you learn the trade?

SH: I watched Harold [a former shoe shop owner on Center Street] fix shoes for a year. When I didn't have anything to do, I'd go sit out front and watch him. I didn't fix any - I just watched. Then he told me this guy named Dominic had passed away and his shop was all set up. All I needed was the money to buy it . . . So I bought the place and said, "Shit, now I've got to do this on my own." It was hit or miss for a while. I remember the first pair of shoes I did, I stitched the guy's uppers right to his sole. The person that it happened to was running the Small Business Administration in Burlington. What a first customer to have, putting extra holes in his shoes! But I guess it all worked out in the wash. I'm still here.

SD: How do you stay in business when people see everything as disposable?

SH: A lot of it is. If you spent $30 or $40 on your shoes, throw them away, because if you're going to put new half-soles and heels on them, that's what it's going to cost you to get them fixed. But if you buy a good, expensive shoe, it's worth getting it fixed at least once. I have customers who've been putting soles on the same pair of shoes for 10 years. But they bought a good pair of shoes to start out with.

SD: Has your work changed much over the years?

SH: The glues have changed. They're a lot better. Everything is glued versus being stitched. I still stitch soles on shoes, but most of the time I just press them on because the glues work so well.

SD: What's the hardest part of your job?

SH: Coming to work. It's not a hard job. It's a job you can do for a long, long time. You can make it as stressful as you want. I try not to.

SD: What's the best part?

SH: Being my own boss. I get to call the shots. I've had help here before. I used to do Merrell footwear and do their referral work for the whole United States for, like, 15 years. I just got a box from UPS today from a business in Maryland. They called up Merrell and wanted to know where they could get their boots fixed and they referred the people to me. I do work for Burton Snowboards every day. I fix their bags and snowboard boots and backpacks, stuff like that.

SD: What's the most unusual job you've done?

SH: I worked on a pair of size 15 sneakers. They were huge!

SD: Did they belong to a basketball player?

SH: No. It was some local high school kid.

SD: Any other unusual jobs?

SH: I've fixed trampolines and sails for sailboats. Haven't done sails in years, but I can still do them.

SD: Why does the word "cobble" have a negative connotation?

SH: Cobblers used to be people who built shoes and most shoe repairers just slap stuff together. I try to put some craft into it. It's an art to make it look brand-new again.

SD: Plan on sticking around?

SH: Yeah, I'll do this for a little while longer. I don't know when exactly I'm going to cash it in, but it's a needed business in this area and people would be really sunk if I didn't do it.