The cobbler is 54, young in a business that has grown old. His only child, a son, has already told him he won’t be taking over the family business when his father retires.
It’s an honorable profession, being a cobbler, but he has other plans for his future and they don’t include fixing broken high heels or replacing worn soles.
“The sad thing is there aren’t a lot of cobblers left,” says Mourad Ohanian, owner of Mike’s Quality Shoe Repair in Woodlands Hills. “Older cobblers are retiring, and there are no new kids coming into the trade to take their place. Shops are closing.
“I used to have young people walk into my shop every week asking if I was hiring? They wanted to learn the profession. I haven’t had anyone ask me that in 10 or 15 years.”
He can understand why his son wants to choose his own future, but for the cobbler, business has never been better. We may live in a disposable society, but quality shoes are getting a reprieve thanks to one of the world’s oldest professions.
“Buying new, quality shoes is not cheap, plus it takes time to break in a new pair,” Mourad says. “People like the comfort and style of their old shoes. They don’t want to throw them away.
“Their shoe model may have been discontinued or they have feet problems, too wide or too narrow a foot. Whatever, people who buy quality come to the cobbler and we make their shoes like new again.”
It takes years of apprenticeship to learn the profession, and years more to hone your skills. Cobblers help keep the people of the world moving, says the Shoe Healer Society, describing the process.
“Cobblers spend their days sewing, cutting, dying, stitching, patching, sanding, polishing, sealing, shining, and mending shoes, boots, sandals, clogs, moccasins, loafers and stilettos…using knives, hammers, tack pullers, prying tools, needles, and their own creativity.
“Most cobblers learn the trade as a family craft. It is a job passed down from generation to generation.”
And now, Mourad’s generation will be the last for his family, which immigrated to the United States from Armenia in 1977 when he was three. There was never a doubt what his future would be.
As a young man, he apprenticed at Angelo’s Shoe Repair in West Los Angeles with his cousins before striking out on his own 20 years ago and buying an established shoe repair shop in a mini mall at 4864 Topanga Canyon Boulevard, west of Ventura Boulevard, in Woodland Hills.
He took one look at the upscale neighborhood and envisioned bedroom closets filled with quality shoes that would need new soles, broken heels replaced, and faded colors rejuvenated, and he was right. He soon was hiring older, trained cobblers to work part-time to help him keep up with business.
You know you picked the right area for your trade when it’s the maid dropping off shoes for repair, he says. Mostly, women’s shoes. With the work comes the expectations. People who buy quality demand it from the cobbler.
“This is not like fast food where people come and go,” Mourad says. “These are people who trust my work and keep coming back. There’s a reason we’ve been here over 40 years. We’re old school. We take our time, and time grows a business.”
But, time can also limit growth, and that’s what’s sadly happening in one of the world’s oldest professions. The business is there, but the younger generation of future cobblers isn’t.
“I’m 54, and still years away from retiring,” Mourad says. “When the time comes, I guess I will try to sell my business.”
But who will have the skills, the craftsmanship honed over the years to run it like he has, the cobbler wonders?
Where will the maids go to drop off shoes for repair?
Dennis McCarthy’s column runs on Sunday. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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