When I first moved to Manhattan, my coworker Sara introduced me to the man who would become “my” shoe guy. When you live in NYC (or any walking city), you will destroy every pair of shoes you own, so having a shoe guy in NYC is like finding a trustworthy doctor when you move to a new city: it’s inevitable and best not to wait until you’re desperate. But even with a fantastic shoe guy, I have a long history of being embarrassed by the state of my shoes. I take pride in my appearance, but somehow my shoes can never quite keep up with the rest of me. They have been the enemy: uncomfortable and unreliable no matter how much money I increasingly spend on them. And even more embarrassing, I have to admit to throwing away some shoes in the past that have let me down one too many times. I needed help.
Alexander Bourne is a young entrepreneur who set aside his dream of becoming an orthodontist to start Patina Shoe Parlor in New Orleans in early 2012 after he accidentally purchased a shoeshine kit at a garage sale. Almost overnight, he expanded the business from just shoeshines to include repairs of shoes and leather accessories. I spent an hour with him to pick up some tips on how to take care of my ever-embarrassing shoe collection and how to know what shoes to invest in.
Here’s what I learned from Alex:
1. Before you throw out a pair of shoes, take them for a consultation at your local shoe repair shop. I was amazed at the extent of repairs that Alex can do (and I LOVE seeing the “After” shots on his Instagram). Need the whole sole replaced? He can do it. Got a scuffed shoe? He’s your man. Just a quick heel repair? He can help. So before you toss, it’s worth asking if a repair can be done. Depending on the extent of the damage, it might not be cheap, but your shoes could look like new with a little love and investment.
2. You will wear through your shoes, even if they are well-made. This was my zen moment, and I was quite glad to hear it from Alex. Shoes get more wear and tear than the rest of your wardrobe. I feel guilty because I seem to go through shoes so quickly, but in reality, it is because I love walking and I tend to rotate just a few favorite pairs of shoes rather than buying lots of pairs. If this describes you as well, you are going to need to make friends with someone in shoe repair.
3. Invest in shoes that can be repaired. An expensive shoe does not necessarily mean it is a repairable shoe. When you buy a repairable well-made shoe, simple sole and heel replacements can be done over and over as long as the rest of the shoe holds up. For men and women, turn the shoe over when you are shopping and look for leather soles and wooden heels. Avoid molded rubber soles (sorry, comfort shoes!) or anything that has been fused to the shoe’s upper rather than stitched.
4. A big price tag doesn’t mean the shoe will last. When I asked Alex if shoe price relates to shoe quality, he pointed to the example of the infamous Louboutins: “Christian said, ‘I don’t make shoes for you to be comfortable in. I make them for you to look good in.’” That makes sense. If shoes are difficult to walk in, they probably weren’t made for walking. Save them to wear on special occasions, but don’t expect them to last forever.
5. Leather lasts, but more ethical options exist too. Alex says that a surprising number of his clients are vegans, who don’t wear leather products both for ethical reasons and for the environmental impact, especially of the tanning process. Vegan alternatives can include synthetic leather substitutes, which are improving. It’s not a black-and-white choice quite yet, though. Leather is typically more expensive but easier to shine and refurbish (and therefore, save), while vegan alternatives are less costly but less likely to be repairable or as durable as leather, meaning they are more likely to end up in a landfill faster. It’s worth it to do your research.
6. A lot of people just don’t know shoe repair is an option. I asked Alex what types of people he sees investing in the repairs. He says you can’t predict clients by demographics: his clients include everyone from vintage shoppers and young students to some of the city’s wealthiest. However, he thinks the difference is in awareness, which is too personal to quantify. Alex explained, “You have individuals who may have grown up with their grandfathers, their parents getting things repaired, so they feel that is something they should do. More often, you get individuals that just aren’t aware that these services even existed.” And sometimes those new to shoe repair need some convincing: “They look to get something repaired, and they say, ‘That’s more than I initially spent for it.’ That right there…negates what they originally bought them for. You bought them because you liked them, you liked the way they feel, maybe over time, you’ve acquired an emotional attachment to them. You have people that it has nothing to do with whether or not they can pay for it, it’s strictly reasoning. These people don’t want to reuse or repurpose their goods because of essentially a number.” Moral of the story: think about the value of the shoes to you, not just the cost of the shoe. And if you’re just starting to take your shoes in for repairs, ask questions and feel free to get a second opinion on a repair cost. It can definitely be worth the investment.
And finally, a tip from me: don’t wear dirty boots with run-down heels to interview someone who works with shoes. He’s gonna look at your shoes, so be prepared. Alex has always had high standards for his own shoes, mentioning that “I’ve always been the one, even before I got into shoe repair, I’d be the one to go into the bathroom, and if [my shoes] ever got dirty, I would get some dishwashing liquid, take a glass, get an old toothbrush, mix it up, and I’d just scrub ‘em. I’ve always been that way. My shoestrings, I’ll take them out, throw them in with some bleach, let them soak in the sink…” Now that’s dedication.
In NYC? “My” shoe guy can be found at Yakub Shoe Repair (212-673-6230) at 229 Sullivan Street in Greenwich Village. He’s in the back of the shop behind the dry cleaning counter. Tell him I say “hi.”