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The Last Days Of Shoe Repair

December 31, 2018
by the gentle author

Dave opening up at 7am for the last time at Liverpool St

Just a couple of years ago, there were five places to get your shoes repaired at Liverpool St Station. I barely noticed when the first three disappeared because I always took my shoes to Dave Williams at his booth in Liverpool St. When Dave told me he was quitting on the Friday before Christmas prior to the redevelopment of the terrace, I learned that he would leave only his brother-in-law Gary Parsons at Shoe Key Services – round the corner in the Liverpool St Arcade – as the last man standing. Yet he has also been given notice because his booth is being redeveloped in a year’s time. These are truly the last days of Shoe Repair at Liverpool St Station.

‘I asked about coming back but they don’t want me back, they told me it’s going to be high end only,’ Dave admitted with a frown of disappointment as he swept the pavement outside his shop. For the past twenty years, he has been repairing shoes from seven until six for five days a week at Liverpool St, supplying a vital service with astonishing resilience.

In the week before Christmas, I accompanied Dave through his last days, arriving when he was opening up and sitting in the corner of the booth to observe the rhythm of the day as dawn broke and dusk fell again, as the rush hour ebbed and flowed, as customers brought worn shoes and collected them repaired.

With feverish expertise, Dave worked constantly, repairing several pairs at once – as many as fifty in a day – hammering, sanding, gluing, cutting, spraying and polishing. While waiting for the glue to dry on one pair, he would be tearing the old sole off another and then trimming the new sole once it adhered. Keeping his head down and his eyes on the task, Dave was absorbed in his activity yet maintained a constant stream of banter, thinking out loud. Three generations of skill and craft, and over a century of hard work, culminated in this degree of accomplishment which met its end last week.

In Dave’s stream of thought, those who had gone remained present. ‘My brother-in-law John Holding worked with me here for many years and never had a day off sick but then he went home one day, had a heart attack and died at forty-one,’ Dave confessed in sadness. I sat in the yellow glow of the booth as the afternoon light faded to blue outside where the taxis lined up. ‘They should switch their engines off but they all keep them running ,’ Dave commented over his shoulder, ‘It’s amazing I am still breathing, with the air quality in this booth.’

Dave was constantly interrupted, ceasing work in an instant and emerging from behind the counter to greet each customer and hear their request. There was an intimacy to these conversations, admissions of human failing and fallibility expressed in terms of shoes. Reliably and with magnanimity, Dave delivered his panacea to the worn-out soles of City workers, returning their shoes shining like new. I learned there are many who share the sense of consolation I draw from getting my shoes repaired. In the anonymous City where thousands pass by, the repair booth is an unlikely haven of kindness.

Consequently there were gasps of alarm and disbelief when Dave told his longterm customers of his imminent departure. An accumulating stream of gifts passed over the counter as the week passed away. ‘So many bottles, I could open a bar,’ quipped Dave as he stacked them at the back of the shop.

Dave’s emotions were equivocal. He was angry at the loss of his business, being pushed out by landlords with the insult of replacing his necessary trade by ‘high end’ retail. A community of long-standing small traders in this terrace at Liverpool St, including a jeweller, a barber and a lawyer is no more. Yet after decades of early mornings and long days, Dave is relieved to take a break too. I witnessed these conflicting feelings tempered with visible delight at the appreciation shown by his many long-standing customers. It was a poignant spectacle.

As people came and went, Dave revealed his family history in the business and his plans for the immediate future.

‘My grandfather Henry Alexander Williams was a saddler from Limerick who served in the British army in the First World War. His son Norman, my dad, was born in Ireland and trained as a saddler too but he settled here in the forties. Saddlers and shoe repairers work with the same tools, so he set up as a shoe repairer in Watney St Market and I am the only one of the grandsons who continued with it. Watney St Market was a different place thirty-five years ago, it was a lovely place to grow up.

I had a shop of my own in White Horse Lane and some other places around Stepney Green, but they demolished all the buildings and I could not make it pay. So I have been here since 1998 in Liverpool St, I have worked continuously and I have always made a living.

I do not know what I am going to do after this. My children are grown up, my mortgage is paid off and I have no debts. I have booked a couple of holidays, Jamaica in January, Marrakesh in February and then a wedding in Las Vegas. I will have a few months off. I will be glad of a rest. I would not have done more than another five or ten years if I had been given a choice.

Now it is coming to an end, I think ‘How tedious!’ How could I have been doing the same thing all this time? Yet I have really quite enjoyed it.’

‘You’ve just got to keep picking them up and putting them down’

‘I wouldn’t like to guess how many shoes I’ve done over the years’

‘How can I repay you? You saved my week!’

Until the end of 2019, you can still get your shoes repaired at Shoe Key Services in Liverpool St Arcade

You may like to read my original story

The Cobblers of Spitalfields

22 Responses leave one →
  1. Jonathan Madden permalink
    December 31, 2018

    Thank you GE for this post. When I worked nearby in Finsbury Square I used to use many of the independent shops near and around Liverpool Street including this one. Again it’s another sign of the times, and a very sad one. I also mourn the decline of the independent cafe too, now all but disappeared completely, replaced by large corporate chains. All these small businesses were intrinsic to the character of the area and I’m constantly told not to look back, but i’m afraid I can’t help it, that’s how I learn. Thanks again for the story.

  2. Greg Tingey permalink
    December 31, 2018

    “but they don’t want me back, they told me it’s going to be high end only”
    I simply don’t believe this level of stupid & arrogant & greedy – all too common of course – look at the pubs being sold off for very short-term gain.
    I have actually used Dave’s services a couple of times & it was always a pleasure to observe as I walked or hurried past ….
    Another one gone – I wonder how the greedy developers will fare if Brexit goes ahead & the economy crashes?

  3. Liz permalink
    December 31, 2018

    I can remember both the shop at Watney Market and the one at White Horse Lane. Dave has given wonderful service to all over the years, whatever their background.

    Why do modern landlords assume that everyone wants upmmarket stores? That’s one reason our high streets are in such decline. People with trades like Dave are invaluable and far more useful than e.g. a boutique or expensive fashion accessories store.

  4. December 31, 2018

    Sad to see a great service being trashed for ‘High End’ nonsense. Good luck to Dave! Valerie

  5. mlaiuppa permalink
    December 31, 2018

    I am a retired teacher. In 1978 I began my career as a music teacher with five classes a day of music appreciation and choir. The second week the administration took one class away and gave me a book and said my 8th grade U.S. History class would report on Monday. The answers are in the back, just stay one chapter ahead.

    I had one student that would show up but didn’t put in any effort or do any homework. He made a barely passing C on the tests. I talked to him about this and his future. How would he graduate high school or go to college with such a lackluster effort? He said he knew everything he needed to know. His father owned his own shoe repair business and after school he went there and his Dad was teaching him everything he needed to know to take over the business. He already had all of the reading and math skills he needed to run the business. At 14 he had his life’s career planned out and all the skills he needed for it.

    I really couldn’t argue with him.

    It is now 40 years since then and you article brought this conversation back to me.

    He would be around 54 years old now. I wonder if he is still repairing shoes? I know I have used the services of shoe repairmen off and on over the years, not just for shoes but for purses, luggage, anything made of leather. But I have had to search for a new shoe repairman off and on because the one I used has closed or moved.

    Perhaps it is our throw-away, disposable society that no longer values repairing things? I know I would get my heels redone, new soles, new linings, I would do anything to keep that favorite pair of shoes on my feet. The last repair was to sew in new elastic to hold some buckles. It cost me $15 per shoe. I can understand why people would think “for $30 I could buy another pair of shoes.” But these were leather and cost me $135. Granted I had worn them for about 10 years but I paid the money because it was cheaper than buying a new pair and they would last me at least another 10 years.

    I’m sure my student years ago figured that being a shoe repairman would be a steady, reliable job. He would have a successful business for his lifetime and perhaps have a child to follow in his footsteps and take over the family business. People would always need their shoes repaired no matter the state of the economy. In fact, in a recession business was probably better with people opting to repair rather than replace. Still I wonder. If you are at the whims of the landlord, is it really that dependable a business to pursue? How many young people are apprenticing to become shoe repairmen these days? Will it become a lost art?

  6. caroline bousfield permalink
    December 31, 2018

    How shocking -how could the landlords be so shortsighted about what the public really needs? ‘High end’ fashion is everywhere, and is struggling, but small specialist shops are both a necessity and a treasure.

  7. December 31, 2018

    Thank you for another year of wonderful stories. I have enjoyed every single one of them. Good to see Schrödinger settling in, and how nice to see the Viscountess Boudicca back in these pages! I wish you a wonderful 2019.
    Natalie

  8. Chris Booty permalink
    December 31, 2018

    And so sad that the developers’ and planners’ idea of “high end” will be yet more anodyne chain outlets offering overpriced rubbish.

  9. Miss Gherkin permalink
    December 31, 2018

    “High end shops only” – we currently have Chanel in Spitalfields Market. Let’s see if Dave’s shop will be replaced by Hermes – and perhaps there will be an Armani shop in the Liverpool Street arcade?

    This part of London is forcibly being turned into something it never was and was never meant to be.

  10. Helen Breen permalink
    December 31, 2018

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, thank you for following Dave’s sunset days in his shoe repair business at Liverpool Station. His story really touches a nerve as evidenced by the hearty response to this piece.

    I particularly agree with Liz “…Why do modern landlords assume that everyone wants upmmarket stores? That’s one reason our high streets are in such decline. People with trades like Dave are invaluable and far more useful than e.g. a boutique or expensive fashion accessories store.”

    So true in London and elsewhere. The best to Dave in the future.

  11. Paul Loften permalink
    December 31, 2018

    They are trying to get rid of the hand and brain and replace it with a machine for gain. A hand , a brain, there is no need, for those who worship corporate greed

  12. December 31, 2018

    To have a good Shoe Repairmen is very important these days. Happy those People who have got one for coming times!

    +++ A HAPPY NEW YEAR 2019 +++
    +++ EIN FROHES NEUES JAHR 2019 +++
    +++ UNE BONNE ET HEUREUSE ANNÉE 2019 +++

    Love & Peace
    ACHIM

  13. Anna permalink
    December 31, 2018

    I count myself as very fortunate to still have an excellent cobbler on the high street in the small rural market town where I live.

  14. Jill Wilson permalink
    December 31, 2018

    Grrrrr! I totally agree with all the comments so far and can’t believe that the greedy landlords can be so short-sighted. I know that if I lived or worked in the City (and had shoes which were good enough to mend!) I would much prefer having people like Dave in the area providing a much needed service rather than yet more naff “high end” shops.

    Please keep on championing the real skilled workers while they are still with us – thank you!

  15. December 31, 2018

    Such happy memories from my time at the Baltic Exchange in St. Mary Axe – before The Gherkin – and getting my shoes repaired en route. Thanks for the Memory and Happy New Year. Inge Mitchell.

  16. Saba permalink
    December 31, 2018

    Enjoy your retirement, Dave. You deserve such a happy life after many years as a skilled craftsman serving the public.

  17. December 31, 2018

    Frankly, “high end” is in the eye of the beholder. Harumph.

    I can’t imagine anyone passing this interesting work environment without musing “Oh isn’t it GREAT that there are still services like this?” And tell their friends, and colleagues. And provide MORE work for Dave and his fellow specialists. Forming the pulse of the city.

    Tell me: What is the lasting worth of these other high end pretentious shops that come and go, never leaving a dent, never mind a memory or moment of appreciation?

    I am so glad to hear the words of appreciation here, adding to those by Dave’s long-time customers. I hope he realizes the value he provided and how much vitality he contributed to your city.

  18. December 31, 2018

    its even more important to have a cobbler with high end as ‘high end’ is made to last and will only last with the help of a good cobbler… lovely to hear how he can now open an off-license with all his well-wishers!!! I will get my shoes repaired until the cobbler says they are beyond it, and generally the cobbler will still rescue them at their worst. I am always amazed at the optimism of cobblers – nothing is too much of a challenge! Thank you as always for your posts and happy 2019

  19. Richard permalink
    December 31, 2018

    Thanks a lot for this and all the posts.
    A very happy new year to you and all the readers.

  20. Jeanette permalink
    January 1, 2019

    Good luck Dave! And all best for 2019.

  21. Agent X permalink
    January 3, 2019

    I think that some commentators here are labouring under the mistake of thinking that landlords are interested in what “the public” wants. They’re not. They’re solely interested in maximising their income from rentals . Especially, when you’ve spent a lot of cash on a (re)development. A high end business will allow them to charge a much higher rental than a low end business.

    I’m not defending them btw. I’d much rather have local businesses producing goods/providing services that most people actually need rather than overpriced posh tat!

    Sadly that is 21st century Britain for you.

  22. BPL permalink
    January 6, 2019

    Twenty years ago, I came to this country to study handmade shoemaking in East London, the old Cordwainers College. England in particular was and is reknowned for its handmade men’s shoes, for very good reasons. Later on, I worked as a designer in and around Spitalfields for nearly ten years. And I would go to Gary for my repairs, for things I would never have time to do myself. I chose Gary, because I watched him work and could see his skilful hands were not insensitive (as is sometimes seen in shoe repair). So I asked him “where did you train?” And it began a long relationship, where I knew Gary and he got to know me quite well. I assume Dave has a similar background—these men trained up in Northampton where the old shoemakers’ industry once thrived. Learning all the nuances of working with German soling leather, inks, etc This is a true craft and in some hands elevated to an art. I still work as a designer. And at Cheaney, the only shoe concern still owned by the Church family and the only non-bespoke footwear still entirely made in Britain (not part made abroad and finished in the UK), they have a lively, beautiful little factory but struggle to find people to want to train and learn these skills. It would still be a nearly job for life—this level of footwear has a global reach. But few want to do this sort of work anymore. It’s heartbreaking.

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