Shoe Repair

by Barbara L. Rothschild


In today's world, it is very difficult to find an old fashioned shoe repair shop. It seems to have become a dying trade and almost lost tradition, of mostly the old time Italian-Americans who brought the skill with them to America from their native Italy. That is not to say that there were no other ethnicities who mastered the trade, as you will note further in this same recollection of mine.

Today, the advent of "cheap" vinyl and plastic shoes manufactured largely in China, and held together with glue and paste, rather than with bona-fide nails, has almost made this old time vocation obsolete. It is more probable today, if one is so inclined, to drop off a pair of leather shoes for repair at a commercial dry cleaning establishment, where it is "sent out" to wherever the shoes go, and one can pick up their shoes in several days. Needless to say, repairing a pair of GOOD leather shoes today, runs a small fortune, and it is probably more feasible to purchase a NEW pair for LESS than the cost of repair, in some cases.

I recall several shoe repair shops in Newark. The one which is outstanding in my mind, is one which was located in the vicinity of Clinton Avenue, near Ridgewood or Badger Avenues. It was just in from the corner, maybe a store or two down. It was a little store, and at its helm, was a very old, as I recall now, a snow white haired gentleman, who spoke more Italian than English. My mother used to speak to him in Italian, my mother, as I am today, a person of the ability to communicate in many foreign languages.

I recall the HUGE whirling machines and gears, which took up most of the space in this tiny shop. I also recall some of the scents of the various lacquers, dyes and shoe varnishes which assailed one's nostrils immediately upon entry to the shop. There was a row of chairs, where one could be seated, while the shoe repairman busied himself with your repair. Sometimes, he would tell you he could not immediately repair the shoes, and that you would have to come back tomorrow. Whereupon, you came back to the shop, now toting the shoes for repair, and you would receive a "ticket" for pickup. I often wondered how this little man never got all those waiting shoes mixed up, despite the tickets given out to the customer!

What stood out in my mind as a very young child, was the ambience of this little shoe repair shop. For when one entered the store, one was greeted by not only a cacophony of machines, but there was also a fine rendering playing on a record player of some beautiful Puccini opera, such as "Madame Butterfly", or maybe even a Verdi opera, such as "Aida". In addition to these beautiful sounds, what was extraordinary, was that the gentleman had many, many little birds.....canaries of all colors, Red Factor canaries, yellow canaries, and canaries of all colors in between. These tiny little birds would add their sweet little songs to the beauty of the operatic sounds and the whirling machines, which permeated the little shop. I recall that the little man told my mom that he only had male canaries, for it was only the males that sang so sweetly. There were cages and cages of the little critters all throughout the shop, wherever one looked. And all the little birds were kept neat as a pin. I often wondered when the little man had time to tend to all those shoes waiting for his attention and repair!!! It was such a joy and experience to have to visit this shoe repair shop, and I always looked forward, especially to seeing and hearing all those lovely little birds. To this very day, I am a bird lover (all other animals as well), and I presently own a number of birds, from small ones to parrots. I also enjoy and have backyard feeders to attract the various species of birds, when possible in each season, and sometimes I think my love for those little creatures came from my visits to that little shoe repair shop of yore.

In those days gone by, most shoe repair stores carried a big logo advertisement of a black cat with green eyes, viewed as a profile, holding up one paw. The cat advertised the brand of rubber soles, "CAT'S PAW", which would be the mostly likely brand used in the repair of soles and heels for shoes. The "Cat's Paw" logo was almost the equivalent of the barber pole, which marked the site of what was then a "man's haven."

Another shoe repair shop comes to mind this one was around the corner from Belmont Avenue, on Avon, perpendicular and down from the local candy store, which was at 306 Belmont Avenue. This corner was also a bus stop for the Public Service Transit, for primarily the #56 route bus, which then would proceed to travel to "downtown" Newark, Broad and Market Streets, the hub of the shopping and Newark business mecca.

This second shoe repair shop, as I recall it, was run by a Mr. Sikora, a Jewish shoe repairman. He and his wife, Rose, lived at #85 Avon Avenue, which was an apartment building on the corner of Avon and Belmont Avenue, adjacent to the Sikora shoe repair shop. The photograph in the Newark memory in my Third Ward recollection, the drugstore on the corner, would be on the opposite side of the street, relative to the candy store and shoe repair shop.

I recall, as a child, both I and the many other neighborhood children enjoyed playing a game called "Hopscotch", which was mostly a game played by the little girls. In the game, one used what was called a "potsy" which was thrown and landed on some chalk drawn numbered grid, drawn on the sidewalk. Most often, the "potsy" would be a discarded rubber heel, coming from the repair of men's shoes. Mr. Sikora would delight us neighborhood kids by discarding the old rubber heels removed from shoe repairs, and keeping them in a bucket (saving them) for us. I can recall going into Mr. Sikora's shop and asking for "any rubber heels today?" Usually, I would be rewarded with a few of them, naturally of the "CAT'S PAW" variety. That would be a highlight of the day, receiving a few discards!

What fun days those were.....such happy and innocent times! Oh, to bring back those days so long gone away! I think children were so more far creative (and more appreciative) of the "little things in life," than the children of today, with their plush and extremely expensive electronic games and toys! Paradise then, was sometimes a bit of string, a rubber ball, and if you were lucky on any given day, an old, discarded rubber heel with which to play Hopscotch!!!!! Ah, what fun it truly was!!!!!!!


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