For the first time in decades, the number of shoe repair shops in Duluth has increased.
Now there are two.
National observers say shoe repair -- long a declining industry -- has seen a resurgence with the recession as budget-conscious consumers opt to repair rather than replace their damaged shoes.
But that has little to do with the recent reopening of Pasco's Shoe Repair, a longtime neighborhood mainstay on Sixth Avenue East.
The downtown Holiday Center's former "shoe doctor" was back in town and eager to get back into the shoe repair business.
"I enjoy it," says Chris Schweiger, 43, who operated "The Shoe Doctor" downtown in the 1990s before moving to Alaska. "I enjoy taking a pair of old boots and refurbishing them and making them come back to life." He is a co-owner of Java Express in Two Harbors.
When Pasco's Shoe Repair closed in 2003, it ended a three-generation family tradition spanning 80 years. James Pascoe, the last of the family of cobblers, was 40 and uncertain about the future of the business.
Times had changed. America had become a throwaway society. Many shoes were being made more cheaply, were less durable and tossed instead of repaired. And styles changed quickly.
"Instead of getting shoes fixed, they would buy a new pair," Pascoe said. "Maybe the economy was better, so people didn't have to get their shoes fixed."
When Schweiger approached Pascoe this year about reopening the shop at 706 Sixth Ave. E., Pascoe agreed to lease it to him.
Schweiger did some painting, put up a new store sign, turned on the old neon "shoe repair" sign in the window and was back in business two weeks ago. He has relied on word of mouth to get the news out.
"A lot of people are really happy this is open again," Schweiger said. "People are looking for places to fix things."
His fees range from $6 to $13 for a pair of women's heels to $49 for new soles and heels on Western boots.
Fixing shoes since 1904
In Duluth, the other shoe repair business is Gopher Shoe Repair, 18 N. First Ave. W., which has been around since 1904. Owner Bill Alexander, 55, learned shoe repair from his grandfather, who owned the business for 30 years before Alexander bought it in 1975.
Business is good, up slightly from last year, he says.
"We have more work than we can handle," said Alexander, who doesn't expect the renewed competition to affect his business. "During a recession, we do pretty well. People are recycling their shoes, in a sense, trying to save money."
Carol Knuti of Embarrass became a regular Gopher customer four years ago to replace heels on boots and shoes that keep wearing out.
"There's none anywhere on the Iron Range," she said of shoe repair shops. "We have to come to Duluth for that."
It's an important service, she says, as she dropped off her husband's cowboy boots Friday for repairs. "Like painters, electricians and plumbers, we need them," she said.
Betsy Presley, who grew up in Duluth, is among those who never stopped getting her shoes repaired. She returned to Duluth six years ago after a 50-year absence and was surprised to find Gopher Shoe Repair still in business.
"I was impressed it lasted so long," Presley said as she picked up a pair of repaired shoes.
Without such a service, she'd have to buy new shoes. And that, she says, could get pretty expensive.
Carrying on tradition
While Duluth now has two shops, that's a far cry from the first half of the 20th century when they were as common as small corner grocery stores. At one time, Duluth had 65 shoe repair shops, Alexander said. Some say even more.
"There's not a whole lot of money in it [today], and it's a whole lot of work," said Alexander, who helps out the shop's full-time cobbler when he's not teaching band at Marshall School.
When Schweiger took over Pasco's Shoe Repair in late November, it was much as James Pascoe had left it six years earlier. The repair equipment and supplies were still there, old photos and newspaper clippings still on display. The framed 1923 bill of sale for $650 hung on the wall. Near it hung a photo of 40 members of the Duluth Shoe Repair Association at their 1935 picnic.
"It's an old niche not many know how to do anymore," Schweiger said.
He had done shoe repair for 20 years. He had repaired Barry Manilow's and Rod Stewart's pricey shoes when he worked out of the Holiday Center. He had repaired Sarah Palin's practical outdoor shoes during his eight years in Wasilla, Alaska, where he had a shop.
But, he says, it's a real honor to be running Pasco's Shoe Repair.
"There's a lot of tradition here," he said. "Everybody knows Pasco's."
In Your Business
Pasco's Shoe Repair
Chris Schweiger, 43, operated The Shoe Doctor in downtown Duluth in the 1990s before moving to Alaska. He now runs Pasco's. "I enjoy taking a pair of old boots and refurbishing them and making them come back to life." He is a co-owner of Java Express in Two Harbors.
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