The last shoe drops

A third-generation Kalamazoo cobbler is shutting down his shop with no one left to take it over when he retires this summer. It’s a trend in a craft that has devastated local customers and, nationally, underscores an embrace of waste.

The Subacz family has been in the shoe repair business for three generations, going back over 100 years, including more than half of that time running Ed’s Shoe Repair in Kalamazoo’s Milwood neighborhood.

By the end of June, Jim Subacz says, he’s closing down the shop at 3928 Portage Street to join his wife in retirement– not because he doesn’t have enough customers, but because there’s no one to take it over.

“I like the business; I’ve always loved it. I like the people. I’ve met a lot of good people over 50 years, you know. And that’s probably one of the things I will miss.”

Ed Subacz stands in his shoe repair shop next to a wall covered in product displays
Jim Subacz, 69, poses inside his shoe repair shop in Kalamazoo.

Cobblers are getting hard to find nationwide as the people offering the service age out into retirement and fewer young people enter the trade. According to the trade magazine Footprints, the nation had nearly 59,000 shoe repair shops in 1945. That had dropped to only about 7,000 by 2014.

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Ed’s Shoe Repair started in 1965 when Subacz’s father, Ed, bought the business where his father worked as a cobbler. Kazimierz Subacz, known to friends and family as Charlie, got into the trade while he was in the U.S. Army during World War I. The shop was initially located in downtown Kalamazoo before moving to the then-new Corklane Shopping Center in the 1950s. It moved to its current location in 1988 and Jim Subacz took over the business two years later.

Old photo of Kazimierz (Charlie) Subacz in an apron repairing shoes by hand
Kazimierz (Charlie) Subacz worked as a cobbler in the business his son, Ed Subacz, went on to buy and operate as Ed’s Shoe Repair in 1965. | Courtesy of the Subacz family

Subacz, 69, says the shoe repair industry did experience some tough times during the 1980s. “When plastics came out, synthetic soles and this type of thing instead of leather and rubber in the 1980s, it got to be a little scary,” Subacz says. “It got to be kind of tough, because a lot of that couldn’t be repaired. But then formulas changed, and a lot of people went back to buying more expensive shoes, and it did come back.”

Subacz says even cheaper shoes made today can often be fixed however, a lot of them aren’t. Instead, they’re mostly dumped into landfills when they are worn out or fall out of fashion. The U.S. Department of the Interior estimates 300 million pairs of shoes are tossed out each year. That’s nearly 1.5 million tons of waste, much of it made of plastic that can take thousands of years to decompose.

Nothing goes to waste though if Subacz can help it.

“If it’s something I can fix, I fix it,” he says – and not just shoes. He laces a lot of softball and baseball gloves, as well as repairs handbags, purses, and zippers. He’s even tended to horse blankets, yet the strangest thing he’s seen come through the door was “the three-toed chicken feet.” When his father owned the shop, the local Chicken Coop restaurant needed the feet on its mascot costume resoled.

Jim Subacz holds a shoe sole up to a polishing machine
Jim Subacz, a cobbler, repairs a shoe at his shop.

The future of the trade is uncertain. Subacz says the federal government once had a shoe repair training center in Delaware but it has been closed for a long time. Younger people get into the business by becoming an apprentice to an experienced cobbler. Subacz says that’s hard to do in a small shop in a small city. He says he hasn’t taken on an apprentice in his small shop because he can’t afford to provide a livable wage.

“You’ll find people that will want to get into this. But in most of the country, they’re getting few and far between now,” he says. “The old guys like myself are getting out and nobody’s picking them up. It’s a shame because it’s such a needed business. You can make a good living at it.”

Among other things, Subacz says the expense can be a major hurdle. New stitching machines for shoes cost about $20,000 each, and Subacz says even rebuilt units can run up to $9,000. He also says shop owners must have the skills to perform basic maintenance on their equipment. That’s because the few remaining repair experts charge a lot for their services.

Subacz says he’s been telling customers about his impending retirement for some time.

“One lady actually broke down in here a couple of weeks ago, an older lady who has been a customer of ours for 40 or 50 years. And she literally had to sit down, and she was crying. Made me feel horrible.”

He’s referring customers to a larger shop called Cascade Shoe Repair in Cascade Township near Grand Rapids. He says another one-person shop in Marshall will also be closing later this year.

Ed’s Shoe Repair is still accepting work from customers. It will close for the last time on June 30.

Jim Subacz looks through the neon of a sign in his shop window
Owner of Ed’s Shoe Repair, Jim Subacz, stares out the window of his shop, which will close for good on June 30 when he retires.

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