Walking into Ralph’s Shoe Repair on North State Street took me all the way back through the years to my five-year-old self listening raptly as my mom read Pinocchio to me. I imagined Master Geppetto, working in his cozy shop, whittling the wooden boy who would one day become his living son. The similarity is not the medium; Ralph Lance works in leather, not wood. And it’s not a cross-cultural thing, either. Lance isn’t an impoverished Italian woodcarver and he doesn’t create likenesses of people. But somehow the smell of the leather in his cluttered shop, mixed with the reassuring scent of hundreds of much-worn shoes, boots, and purses, mellowed by the hundreds of hours their owners lovingly wore or toted them, evokes Master Geppetto’s magical love of artistic creation.
The outside of the shop is very ordinary and sits at the end of an equally ordinary-looking mini-strip of businesses. Ah, but when you open the door and step inside…hundreds of pairs of shoes and boots in every imaginable color pack the floor-to-ceiling shelves that groan beneath their weight in the first of the shop’s rooms. Purses, belts, leather jackets with complicated zippers, saddles, and other leather goods in various states of disrepair also patiently await Lance’s personal touch. His workroom fills the shop’s second room, off to the left through a narrow doorway. To take it all in is to appreciate the craft and all that it demands to turn back the clock and make your shoes and boots new again – better than new since Lance says he uses better materials than the original manufacturers. How many people these days, at the end of the workday, can hold something in their hands and think proudly, “I made this beautiful thing?”
Lance told me that people have their own reasons for entrusting their much-loved soles to his care. “They love their shoes,” he explained. “For some it’s because they’re comfortable, for some it’s because they love the shoe and can’t find it anymore.” He also repairs purses. “Sometimes a strap breaks,” he said. “One woman brought in two purses to have their handles switched. She liked one better on the other one, so we just swapped them around.”
Nationally, shoe repair shops are going the way of the dodo. The Shoe Service Institute of America reports that today there are fewer than 7,000 shoe-repair shops in the country, down from 15,000 in 1997 and 60,000 in the 1940s. But as the last one standing in the county (“except for one guy in Gualala who does repairs there”), Lance says he’s busier than ever and gets lots of repeat business. “I get business from all over the county, even from Eureka,” he said. “I have one customer in Wisconsin who mails me his cowboy boots.” He added that since he handed out cards and pamphlets in Covelo he’s getting all kinds of business from there, too. “Lots of ranchers, cowboys, rodeo people, and bikers,” he said, adding that bikers pay good money to repair their leather goods. “I sew their logos on their jackets and fix their zippers and their chaps. Basic shoe repair isn’t that difficult, but when you get into luggage, handles, other more specialized repairs it’s harder…I also do jackets.”
My guided tour of Lance’s workroom visually opened up the complicated business of shoe repair that most people don’t see any more. First up was the patching machine. “Boots can rip at the seams,” he said. “If there’s a rip you can sew it and patch it.” One of the bigger machines is a saddle maker’s sewing machine. Lance said he doesn’t do many saddles anymore. “People won’t pay me what’s it’s worth,” he said, pointing out the space that the machine takes up. “But if you rip it apart I can fix it. I just don’t do the whole thing.” Neither does he make shoes from scratch, from the ground up, so to speak. Lance pointed out his sole stitcher for shoes and boots. To illustrate how it works he picked up a nearby boot and began stitching around the sole. “This machine will sew through just about anything up to an inch think, it uses a much thicker thread,” he explained, as the needle and thread made a vaguely birdlike “chichichichi” sound as they worked around the sole’s edge.
A wall covered with tiny plastic drawers covered one wall. They’re filled with the tiniest tools of the trade. “Those are hooks, eyelets, snaps and jackets in brass, silver, and nickel, as well as solid brass gunmetal and copper,” he said, gesturing toward a dizzying display of different sizes, colors, and metals. “Here are the soles that ladies wear on their high heels,” he said, pointing out 8 pins of different sizes that go on the heels. There are also gadgets to make belt holes and sanders to smooth out soles’ edges.
Taking a deep breath, I commented on the wonderful smell of the shop.” “It’s mostly the glue,” Lance laughed. “All-purpose contact cement – one to seal, one to bond.” He pointed out the glue pot on the work table; it looked like one of those candles in Italian restaurants where the wax melts and drips down the outside of the Chianti bottle that holds it.
Lance has been in the shoe-repair business for over some 35 years, more than 15 of them at his current Ukiah location. He has no plans to go anywhere. “I really enjoy this business and enjoy work,” he said, adding that he never planned to retire and didn’t save for it. He also said he’s always had more than one job. For the last 32 years that’s been throwing papers on a paper route for the Lake County Record-Bee. “I used to deliver around a thousand, now it’s down to 300,” he said.
Lance is philosophical about the reality that he could be the end of the line for his shop on North State Street. He said his kids aren’t interested in taking it on, the apprentice model of work is fading along with the shoe-repair business, and young people aren’t interested in following in his footsteps. “I can’t afford to pay to teach them,” he said. “I tell them that if they like it they can learn the business and go out on their own, but it’s just not something that young people think of. Plus they all wear tennis shoes.”
A cheerful customer came into the shop with a sandal Lance couldn’t find the mate for the last time she came in. As soon as he saw it knew right where to find its mate, yet unfinished. They chatted like old friends as she described her upcoming trip to Maui to visit her son and grandson. He assured her that her sandal would be repaired in time for the trip.
“I’ll have it to you next week,” he assured her. Then, turning to me, he added “Now you have recorded proof that it will be done on time!”