Ahmet Kamil, Shoe Repairer
“I always trust my work”
One of the most popular characters around Newington Green in recent decades has been Ahmet Kamil. His modest repair shop is firmly established as a local hub where everyone is constantly popping in and out to get news, exchanging the time of day and having their shoes mended while they are about it too. At the end of a fine seventeenth century brick terrace, tucked in beneath a green awning, Ahmet’s premises have not changed for as long as anyone can remember.
Winter is the busy season for Ahmet and rainy days in summer can send people into his shop too, so I took advantage of yesterday’s sunshine to pop over to Newington Green and have a chat with him while the business was quiet. Possessing a soulful charisma and a generous spirit, Ahmet spoke his thoughts to me as he continued with his work and I enjoyed my morning in the peace of his beautiful workshop, offering a calm refuge from the clamour of the traffic outside heading up to Stoke Newington.
“This is a family business, we’ve been here about thirty years – maybe more. My father Sattretin Kamil started it up and passed it onto me, his son. Then I took over and now my son, Tevfik Kamil, will follow me. He hasn’t fully taken over yet but he will do so. He tried other things but he’s not been happy with them, so now he’s got interested in this and has decided to do it.
My father Sattretin made shoes by hand in Cyprus, he learnt it when he was only twelve years old and, after he came to this country at thirty-five, he couldn’t get a job so he decided to make shoes here. But he was advised that mending shoes might be easier and more profitable. He had four shops – in New Cross, Charlton, Hornchurch, and this one, all run by the family. After my father retired, we cut back to just this and the one in Charlton. When my son takes over, he’ll be here and I’ll be in Charlton.
I was twenty-five when I decided to give my father a hand and the business just stuck on me – he didn’t push me into it. Because everything’s done by hand, the more you do, the more you like it. Over the years there has been no real competition. If you trust the quality of your work there will never be any competition. I do everything by hand and my work is quality. There are chains with fifty or hundred branches where they do poor quality shoe repair and key cutting, and charge more money. My customers often complain to me about them. I always trust my work.
Shoes are getting more expensive and people’s habits are changing with time. They’re taking more care of their shoes, not throwing them away and getting a new pair – so there is a tendency to repair. Also, there’s a lot of secondhand shops popping up and people are buying old shoes, but the leather dries out and comes away from the sole, and stilleto heels get brittle and smash – and, as a consequence, they are bringing them to me. There’s a healthy future in it, yet there are easier jobs than this in which you can make better money. I’ve always thought of shoe repair alongside dry-cleaning, those shops make more money for less work. We are under pressure with the rent that is constantly going up and the price of materials, but we try to keep the service as cheap as we can.
Not many people will do shoe repair, you have to be fully committed and make good quality shoe repairs, and the work grows on you. But it’s the most difficult job you can do. It’s dirty and it’s hard work. While I was playing football until the age of thirty-five, I never had any aches and pains, but now standing still I get back ache. It’s midday and I’ve been working since nine o’clock – see how dirty my hands are. I work six days a week all year round. I’ve never had a Saturday off in thirty years. I’d like to go and watch the football, but instead I listen to it on the radio and watch the highlights.
You make a lot of friends. I’ve met a lot of people doing this work and many of my customers call me by my name. I’ve just recently been in hospital for an operation for ten days and my son was running the shop, and everybody was coming round, asking about me, ‘Where is he?’ So they are not just customers. Every year I take four weeks off in August and go back to Cyprus. When I come back again, everyone brings in their shoes. They say, ‘We wouldn’t take them anywhere else.’ They tell me, they wait until I come back because of the friendship. That’s the bond I have with my customers.”
“Because everything’s done by hand, the more you do, the more you like it”
“I’ve never had a Saturday off in thirty years”
“It’s midday and I’ve been working since nine o’clock – see how dirty my hands are”
“You make a lot of friends”
At the end of a fine seventeenth century brick terrace, tucked in beneath a green awning, Ahmet’s premises have not changed for as long as anyone can remember.
Shoe Repairs, 52 Newington Green, N16 9PX
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