A couple of weeks ago, I did something I vowed never to do. I purchased a pair of used shoes. Now, I am all for thrifting. In fact, it’s my sole means of acquiring ‘new’ clothes, and I can do it from the comfort of my armchair, thanks to some great used clothing sites online. But used shoes? All I could think of was someone else’s feet inside them, carrying God knows what all, fungus and sweat and bad toenail grooming habits. But these were rugged, barely used Double HH Chelsea boots for a song. At first I was reluctant. I thought, I can get my Docs to soldier on one more winter! My old Doc Martens, I should tell you, are older than my daughter, who was born during the earlier days of the Clinton administration. Back then, Doc Martens were built to last, manufactured for the working class laborers of yore, with a lifetime guarantee. Mine have surely seen better days, but to ship them back to England to have them resoled for free would cost a small fortune, never mind that the leather is fissured and cracked beyond repair. So, I took a chance and ordered the boots, and much to my relief they fit quite well, except for one problematic thing: the left one was too tight in the toe box. Despite several weeks of using a shoe stretcher and leather softening spray, it remained entirely too uncomfortable for my well bunioned tootsy. Clearly, I needed to find a cobbler. Did such a person still exist?
Back when I was a tyke in the Bronx, everything you could ever need was right in your own neighborhood. We had a tailor, a butcher, a fishmonger, a knife sharpener, a kosher grocer, a baker, a vegetable stand, a hardware store, and of course, a cobbler, all within a few block radius. Every business was owned and operated by (what seemed to my young eyes) an old, no-nonsense guy in an apron who knew everything there was to know about the wide world of basic necessities. The shop, no matter its purview, was invariably dimly lit, dusty and crammed full of all manner of highly specialized, slightly terrifying, ancient looking tools. When you walked into such a storefront, you knew you were going to find expertise. That’s what I wanted. But was I setting my sights too high?
As luck would have it, I located a cobbler in Monroe, but it was with much trepidation that I headed over to surrender my prized new boots. What would I find there? A spanking clean, organized enterprise with a fancy POS system and a disinterested young clerk whom I’d feel embarrassed to tell about my bunions? Even as I approached the storefront from the street, I knew I needn’t have worried. The place was a relic, an homage to old school cobblers who fixed your shoes so they’d last the rest of your natural life. Dark, crowded, reeking of conditioners, balms and liniments, with every available surface covered in what could easily have been half a century’s worth of leather scraps, sole parings and unclaimed shoes. And the proprietor? This old guy was exactly what I’d been hoping for, a throwback to a day when fixing your shoes was not just important, but vital. We chatted a while, he and I, sensing an instant kinship. We laughed and talked of health concerns, the way you used to when your cobbler, or your butcher, or your knife sharpener, knew you, knew your history and your family members’ names.
When I left, I knew my shoes were in capable hands, and indeed, when I went back ten days later, it was to boots that now fit me as if they’d been tailor made. But my new friend, the cobbler, confessed to me that his health was failing, and he had made arrangements to let go of the shop. I expressed my dismay, and wished him better health and better days ahead. He refused to take any payment from me. I left with a heavy heart.
Back home, I made space in my closet for my now perfect Chelsea boots. I pulled out the old Docs, finally ready for the trash heap, to make room, and marveled at the difference between them. Nearly 30 years of my life I’ve worn those 8-hole Docs. They have been with me through the entirety of my marriage, the birth of my daughter, the death of my mother, and my grandmother, through the acquisition of eight cars, two houses and six cats, and the loss of one particularly troublesome organ. These old boots, I realized, are not unlike that old cobbler in many ways. Both represent the things that matter, the vital elements of a life well lived: an old pair of boots that refused to give up, an old dude who created a sense of community and took pride in taking care of us, even if it was just to make a pair of shoes a bit more comfortable on our walk of life. I paused for a moment to think about him, and wished him comfort on his last journey. Then I pushed the Chelsea boots to the side and placed my Docs back in the closet. There’s life yet in those old soles.