A Cultural Kaleidoscope

reviews, articles and musings on art, music, travel, culture, and life...

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Syracuse Got Sole...So Much Sole

As I enter Discount Shoe Repair on East Washington Street, the smells of shoe polish and treated leather assail my nostrils. A middle-aged man with olive skin and graying hair shuffles around the small wood-paneled shop. He sees me, sets down the chocolate brown ankle boot he is polishing, and adjusts the gold chain around his neck (possibly bearing a medallion of St. Crispin, the patron saint of cobblers). Then, moving toward me, he holds out both of his arms in a welcoming gesture and greets me in a thick Italian accent. “Ciao, Bella.”

Raphael (or the anglicized “Ralph,” as he tells me he’s called) is from Calabria, Italy. His entire family emigrated to the United States in early 1970 because his grandparents lived in Syracuse where there was a large Italian community. “They loved it here and wanted the rest of the family to join them where there was a better economy and more freedom,” Ralph says.

While watching the local cobblers at work near his home in southern Italy, Ralph was impressed by their hard work, craftsmanship, and attention to detail. “I knew this was going to be my trade,” he says with a half smile as he fingers the stubble on his chin.

As an apprentice in his uncle’s shoe shop, he learned the craft and then opened his own business in 1975 at its current location in downtown Syracuse. Loafers, boots, sandals, handbags, and belts cover nearly every surface of the tiny shop (except for those walls which are plastered with laminated scenic photographs of Italy and tattered posters of Italian soccer teams and the Syracuse Crunch).

He lets me watch him work while he explains the art of repairing a shoe. His hands are rough and calloused with black polish smeared on them, but they move delicately across the shoe as he effortlessly stitches and tacs on a new sole. He places the shoe on a last, an iron mold used to maintain the form. “Each shoe is a challenge and a different puzzle,” says Ralph.

“Here is another shoe where I added a higher heel and sole for a woman who has 2 legs of a different length,” he explains as he holds up a white platform shoe. “I can fix anything and make anything. No one in this town can do what I do. I am the best at my job.”

The cobbler takes great pride in what he does. Ralph is pleased to know that he has mastered a trade and can carry on an old-world Italian tradition. The shoe repair business is like a science to him. As I watch him, he calls to mind a dentist filling a cavity or crafting a denture for the perfect fit.

“What I do is a lost art. They don’t even make these machines I use anymore. Modern ones are for large shoe companies where they manufacture many shoes – and they cost about $100,000 each now,” Ralph shouts over the rumble of a large antique shoe-buffing machine.

Ralph conveys to me that there is nothing like working for yourself and having your own business. He has worked hard over the past 32 years and is proud of his success. He attributes this to the traditions fostered by the surrounding Italian community in Syracuse and his dedicated clients who appreciate his craft. “I have many regular customers who have come here for years and then their kids grow up and start coming to me too,” Ralph says, smirking.

I reach into the shopping bag I have been holding and hand him my favorite pair of worn black high heels with a crocodile pattern. I need them repaired for the third time.

“Who did this?” Ralph exclaims while laughing. “Where was this terrible work done? Please let Ralph take care of you from now on.”


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