Photo courtesy of Jim's Shoe Repair
The dark interior smells of leather, glue and shoe polish. It looks as if Jim’s Shoe Repair hasn’t had a fresh coat of paint since it opened. In 1932 when Vito “Jim” Rocco walked across the threshold of his shop on East 59th Street between Park and Madison Avenues in Manhattan, it was one of 50,424 throughout the United States. In addition to heel and sole repairs, Jim’s shines, stretches, and rejuvenates shoes and other leather accessories after dogs have gotten a hold of them.
Today, although the number of cobblers has dropped to only 7000, the business remains profitable in this high rent neighborhood because of its high level of reliability and service. Although Vito “Jim” Rocco is gone, little more than the shop’s exterior has changed.
“The location was great,” said Vito “Jim” Rocco’s son, Joseph, 78. It was a two way street back then. There was parking on one side and the trolley cars stopped right out front so people could drop off or pick up their shoes easily.” Jim’s is the oldest business on the block since most of the other longtime independently owned businesses like Cambridge Chemists and a barber shop have shuttered or moved away.
It’s no wonder since average retail rents in the area average $979 a square foot according to a May 2009 report released by the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY). Despite the decline of 14 per cent from the market high in the Fall of 2008, the rise in retail vacancies is obvious to anyone who walks along Madison Avenue. Nevertheless, Joe Rocco, Sr. holds on to his heritage and continues to operate the store with his son, Joe, Jr. 51, and three other Roccos; sister-in-law Ellie, 75, daughter, Delores who declined to give her age, and grandson, Anthony, 19.
With consumer spending down at a time when Gucci loafers will set a person back $475 or more and Christian Louboutin peep toe pumps run $850, the demand for shoe repairs may be better than ever. “You want to get your best return from your investment,” said John Mclouglin, president of the Shoe Service Institute of America, “and we see a spike in business.” How much of a spike and over what period of time, McLoughlin didn’t say.
But, truth be told, Jim’s business has slowed despite the shoe service industry’s claim that this is an example of a recession-proof industry.
“Good shoes are expensive and they are worth taking care of at all times,” said Joe Rocco, Jr. the founder’s grandson. He declined to comment on the percent change in repairs since the economy went south. He did concede that business is way down from what it was a year ago.
Jim’s will replace a pair of ladies heels for $8 and up depending on the size while men’s cost $20 for rubber or $21 for English, half rubber/half leather. Rather than replace the shoes, this saves the customer roughly $200 to $500.
“I take very good care of my shoes,” said Joan Easton, a 40-year patron of Jim’s. “If you go to Jim’s, you can wear your shoes for five years.”
Some customers wait for their repairs, seated and shoeless, in one of the six wooden compartments, each with its own black leather seat, foot rest and knee high door, running on one side of the store, from front to back. In the meanwhile, meticulous yet rapid repairs to traditional leather lace ups or black leather pumps are executed behind the service counter with Joe Sr. at the helm. Other patrons choose to drop off their shoes and pick them up upon completion.
“It takes about two weeks for a sole job,” said James Gibson, 54, who’s worked shining shoes and doing repairs for Jim’s since he was 14. “If you want some tips and heels, that takes about a week.” Gibson learned everything he knows from his boss.
Gibson and his co-workers are shoeshine “boys” dressed in dark pants or jeans and navy smocks along the west side of the little shop. They wait their turn to be next to “shine” beside the “stand,” a series of six side-by-side shoeshine thrones, that runs the length of the western side of the store. The code of conduct between the “shiner” and the customer is easy to follow for the seasoned patron.
The shinee enters the store and catches the eye of the shiner who steps back and pats the seat as an invitation for a shine. The customer climbs up three steep steps, turns around, sits down and the shiner gets to work on the shine.
Within five minutes, customers’ shoes are brushed off, wiped with Lexol Leather Cleaner, polished from toes to heels and back again with black or brown goop, massaged and shined with a clean rag and water. The shiner indicates his work is complete with a gentle tap on the side of the one of the shinee’s shoes.
Rather than saying thanks, the customer steps down, heads to the register at the back of the store and pays four dollars for the shine. Moving toward the exit, the shinee can’t help but pass their shoe-shiner and usually, without saying a word, tipping anywhere between two or twenty dollars a shine.
“Some customers come back two or three times a week,” said Shoe Shine Man Antonio Olveira, 61. “They wear different shoes each time so they all look clean and shiny.” But, a sign of difficult economic times, some people that used to come in regularly have cut back, stretching out their shoe-shines to twice a month, down from once a week. Large tips are few and far between.
On average, the four shiners polish 30 to 40 pairs of shoes a day. When they aren’t working with walk-in customers, they turn to shoes that are delivered to the store via U.P.S. from all across the country. A fifth shiner, Reis Jose, has a steady offsite gig in the neighboring office buildings where he shines approximately 50 pairs of shoes a day for five dollars a pop.
“We work harder than the old days,” said Joe, Jr. “but we make less money.” The number of customers is down, we pocket less money due to the slow economy and soaring rents. Even so, he isn’t ready to give up the shop just yet. “If I won the lottery tonight, I wouldn’t stop working.” He might slow down but “working is what keeps people married,” said Joe. It’s like shoe glue, “it keeps my wife and me together.”
Susan Sawyers is a reporter based in New York City. She’s interested in digital media, philanthropy and lifestyle reporting, with a focus on education and leadership. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, School Stories and L.A. Parent. Currently a student at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, she was the former director and curator of Los Angeles’ Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Foundation. She lives with her husband and their two children not far from Central Park. She knows she’s lucky.