ShoeTech Shoe Repair
111 West 9th Street
Wilmington, DE. 19801

302-656-0405
Fax: 302-656-0406

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CLOSED SATURDAYS IN JULY AND AUGUST

 

 

City cobbler harks back to tradition of shop front craftsmen

Wedged between Shipley and Orange on West Ninth Street in Wilmington, Shoe Tech Inc.’s storefront looks just like any other that has seen decades of wear from city life.

But the inside has all the character of a Gatsby-era shop, where a craftsman works on the wares of the elite to return them good as new.

In this more modern case, 49-year-old cobbler Michael Flood has been in business since 1991. He learned the trade from an Italian man in New Jersey when he was 16 years old. And the customers are not all Jay Gatsby.

The shop infiltrates the senses in the best way. It smells of leather, polish, suede, rubber and machinery. Bottles of different colored polishes, sprays, laces, insoles and cleaning supplies nestle against the left wall. Machines hum loudly as various sanders and brushes rotate on full speed.

Flood stands behind a counter in front of a machine with a rapidly spinning horsehair brush. His worn hands, covered by splotches of black polish, pivot a man’s dress shoe along the brush for an even shine.

Flood pulls away from the machine, picks up a black bristled rectangular brush with a wooden handle and seesaws it over the shoe before spraying on polish for the final shine.

Shoes are stacked on one another on the floor. Flood laughs and says he’s saved all that work for me, his apprentice for an afternoon. Cans of polish, a bar of black wax and shoe shine spray sit on a counter facing the door, next to the machine with the horsehair and cloth brushes. Farther back, a rotating display of keys with cartoon characters and sports teams rests on the counter next to a bigger display of gold, silver and bronze keys in all shapes.

On one side of the shop, completed shoe repair orders fill shelves, each with a yellow tag saying who they belong to. Purses hang from the ceiling, freshly strapped and sewn back together. A cardboard box of leathers of all colors, textures and thicknesses rests on the floor. Straps coil on hooks against the back wall. A box of handles sits beneath them.

Flood works on about 50 repairs a day, 100 on some days. Late autumn tends to be the busiest time of year.

Many customers – about 20 percent to 30 percent of his repair jobs – come in right off the street. A gentleman donning a suit and cap walks in, pulls off his dress shoes and passes them to Flood. Flood replaces the heel and tip, and shines the shoes within minutes. The customer and Flood joke about how metal tips used to be all the rage – there was something special about clacking down the street. The customer pays $4, puts his shoes back on, and heads out into the cold.

Most of Flood’s customers are Wilmingtonians who have been coming to him for years.

“I’ve got the greatest customers,” he says. “Most of the downtown workers are my customers. Young and old. Those who have retired still come back to me. Those who have moved into different locations outside the city limits still come back, so they make you feel very good about that.”

New customers walk in on a daily basis and ask what he’s capable of fixing. The answer seems to be: Just about anything.

One customer dropped off his favorite pair of tan Docksiders. He’s willing to pay whatever it takes to get new soles but told Flood to ignore the twin holes on the top outer parts of the shoes. He likes them there.

“By design, this shoe really is not reparable,” Flood says as he shows me the damage. “But I have ways of trying to make it reparable.”

Before I arrived, Flood cut off the old sole and gound it flat, leaving the topmost tan layer. He’s already glued and stitched a cushiony crepe material to the sole and set a black rubber layer aside slathered with glue for a half an hour. He has me line the black layer up with the rest of the shoe.

We bring the pair to a machine that looks like it landed on the Wicked Witch of the East. Two metal lasts, which Floods says are like anvils shaped like feet, stand straight up. Press a button and a device drops onto the shoes, adding pressure to ensure the soles stick.

The Docksiders then head to a device that looks much like a can opener. I grind the excess black off the edges of the rubber soles and take them to the next step – an intimidating sander. The belt rotates so quickly and our hands work so closely to it, I’m sure I’ll lose a nail. Flood’s had his fair share of nicks on the job, but has his craft down to such precision I can’t imagine him erring.

Pivoting with fluidity – one of Flood’s favorite words – is tricky. The rotating sander tries to pull the shoe from my grip while I concentrate on getting an even sole without scratching the side of the shoe.

Flood insists on patching the holes on top. The customer’s feet obviously need the holes there, Flood says, so he roots through the box of leathers to find a light brown piece that fits just well enough so we can patch the hole. We glue the leather inside and after drying a bit, we run it through the enormous orange metal sewing machine. I crank by hand so the needle goes slowly enough for me to follow the original seam.

Flood insists the Docksider man will be pleased with his favorite pair looking better than he probably imagined.

While Flood handles customers, I tackle a pile of dress shoes up front – seven pairs dropped off by a loyal customer who comes once every few months to have the plastic heel plates replaced. I pry the old heel tip off, pull out the nails, sand down the heel and pop the shoe back on the Wicked Witch’s metal foot.

Using the nail gun terrifies me, but I manage to not shoot out my eye as I get the new plate in place. The task ends in a full wax, brush and polish for all the shoes. One pair needs new laces. My hands now have their own coating of shoe shine, but nothing compared to Flood’s.

I amuse Flood with how slowly I work, afraid of sanding my hand or nailing through the shoe. I over-spray one Florsheim, leaving a puddle on the heel.

“My favorite job in the business would be soles and heels, particularly on men’s shoes,” Flood says.

He can apply more of his craftsmanship to those.

Firefighters from around the country send their boots to Flood – it’s one of his specialties. Two parcels from the West Coast await him on a table among the completed shoes and purses. The boots cost several hundred dollars but Flood’s repairs cost a fraction of that: $70 for a resole or $35 for patching and stitching, among other options.

“Shoe repair was declining through the ’80s and the ’90s because most people had a disposable mind-set,” he says. “They would buy inexpensive shoes. It was cheaper to buy new shoes than it was to repair them.”

When the recession hit in 2008, more people were compelled to repair versus replace.

“People come in here every day; ‘Oh, this is a dying art. It’s nice to see somebody still doing this.’ It’s dying art because of, again, the disposable age, the mentality of people,” he says.

“Most people replace instead of repair. The other side of the coinis there’s just not as much dress shoe, formal shoes, worn today as there was, say, 30, 40 years ago. Thirty, 40 years ago, every man, woman and child had their shoes repaired.

“Today, most men go to work business casual. Women just buy different color pumps, wear them out with a dress and throw them out and get another pair. And kids don’t even know what a shoe is. They wear nothing but sneakers.”

When Flood set up his full-blown shop, the machinery, tools and inventory cost him about $100,000. But he buys the tips and heel plates and all the other little repair pieces in bulk.

“I’m not a sociable person by nature,” Flood says. He knows few people in the neighborhood he’s lived in for nearly two decades.

“But my customers, my shop, I feel at home. I feel like a person could come in here, does come in here, and hopefully when they leave here, they’ve had a happy experience. They’ve had a laugh or two maybe or they just had a good experience. They didn’t mind spending their money with me.”

 

NEWS JOURNAL

 

 

Delaware Cobbler wins national recognition
By E. Janenen Nolan
Staff reporter

A 38-year old Middletown man has made a profitable and interesting business out of repairing shoes and firefighter boots.

Michael Flood's work for a national manufacturer of firefighter boots, as well as a fire restoration company, has helped him find a niche in the evolving industry of shoe repair.

It has also helped set him apart from several hundred contestants nominated in Mail Boxes Etc.'s national Most Intriguing Businesses contest. The retail postal and business services chain chose Flood's shop as on of its top 10 picks in recognition of National Small Business Week earlier this month.

About 10,000 cobblers were working in the United States about 15 years ago, compared with roughly 7,000 today, according to industry representative.

Cobblers had more work when men's shoes were more expensive, and before women packed their high heels in briefcases, donning sneakers for the commute. Well-worn stilettos required frequent heel replacement, said Tom Costin, chief executive of Soletech, a Massacusetts-based supplier of materials for shoe manufacturers and repairers.

"There aren't as many repairable shoes coming into shops, and that has had a dramatic impact on the repair business," he said.

But the work is there.

"We're always going to have work because people are always going to wear shoes," said Flood, whose Shoe

Tech business is in downtown Wilmington across from the Ninth Street Book Shop.

He also expanded his repair services, and sought contracts with a fire restoration firm and various Wilmington companies.

"Flood branched out, and that is what it takes for a shoe repairer to do well," said Costin, a board memeber of Footwear Industries of America, a trade organization based in Washington, D.C.
About eight years ago, Flood began using special techniques and materials to repair firefighters boots sold by Ohio-based Total Fire Group, a national supplier of gear for firefighters.

Today, about 4 percent of Flood's business comes from work on Pro-Warrington leather firefighter boots, priced between $100 and $300.

Total Fire refers customers to Flood, who returns the boots to the customer but bills the company, said Diane Bible, Total Fire vice president.

"He's willing to do anything he needs to do to get the job done," Bible said.

Flood got his start in the shoe repair business when he was 15 years old. He was hitchhiking to his job as a dishwasher at an International House of Pancakes restaurant.

A local businessman, owner of a shoe-repair shop picked him up and said, "You don't want to wash dishes. Come work for me," Flood recalled.

He worked for the elder cobbler until 1980, when he decided to try automotive repair and then installation of shoe-repair machinery. But by 1986, Flood was back to repairing shoes. He worked as a tech for Fast Feet, which had several regional shops, including one in Concord Mall. Flood worked at the mall and other company-owned sites until approaching Fast Feet's owner about buying the shop on Market Street Mall in Wilmington.

By 1991, Flood and his wife, Tina, were business owners. About five years ago, they moved their shop to Ninth Street.

Shoe Tech's annual sales are about $140,000, Flood said, adding that he began making a profit about four years ago. The average cost to repair a woman's shoe is between $5 and $7. Men's shoes cost about $40 to fix, depending on the repairs, Flood said. And he charges between $10 (for simple repairs) and $50 (for new soles) to repair the firefighter boots, he said.

With his experience, Flood can be considered a shoe-repair expert. But he doesn't really like to be called a cobbler.
"That's the old-timers," he said. "When I hear cobbler, I think of a Norman Rockwell picture."

 

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