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Ahmet Kamil, Shoe Repairer

June 7, 2014
by the gentle author

“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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The Cobblers of Spitalfields

12 Responses leave one →
  1. Libby Hall permalink
    June 7, 2014

    The terrace in which Ahmet works was built in 1658. It is the oldest surviving terrace in London. For me those houses radiate a richness of London history that is not equalled by any other London house, even when equally old or older. There is something about the cohesive solidity of the terrace that I always find reassurring. I imagine all that those houses have ‘known’ and ‘seen’, and all the many lives that have come and gone from them, and I think about how the green before them has changed and changed and changed again while they have remained placidly simply THERE.

  2. June 7, 2014

    By the way: My shoes are worn down and I would like to hand them over to Mr Ahmet Kamil. I think he is a professional!

    Love & Peace

  3. June 7, 2014

    Thank you, Gentle Author, for introducing us to another lovely Londoner. I expect you know that the brick terrace which houses Ahmet’s shop dates from the seventeenth century. Do you know any more about its history?

  4. Vicki permalink
    June 7, 2014

    Delicious chaos 🙂

  5. June 7, 2014

    I would love to take my shoes to this wonderful cobbler, although North London is too far from Guildford! I love a proper Cobblers shop…nostalgia I think ! My briefcase from Florence is now very; old and battered but I seek out the cobbler when needed and my briefcase continues its journey.
    Thank you once again GA for introducing us to these wonderful London craftsmen and characters.

  6. June 7, 2014

    The terrace is just beautiful, let’s hope Boris Johnson doesn’t decide to destroy it. Ahmet is a true craftsman, and has a wonderful attitude to his work. Valerie

  7. Neville Turner permalink
    June 7, 2014

    Keep up the good work Ahmet,it’s always good to hear of real craftmen who manage to keep their skill going doing something that the internet cannot supply.Shoe makers and repairers from Cyprus have always been some of the best,I remember made to measure shoes being made by very skilled Cypriot craftmen in Brick Lane Spitalfields about 1955.Take very good care of your hands Ahmet they have skills we do not want to lose.

  8. Bronchitikat permalink
    June 7, 2014

    We had a shoe shop in a Portsmouth backstreet near us for many years. Yes, it sold new shoes, dance pumps etc, but he was mainly known for his repairs. The years we’ve been going there for resoling and heeling . . .

    Only he’s been trying to retire for the past couple of years. Trying to sell the business as a going concern, cos it was, people would come to him for miles to get their shoes repaired. Trouble is he can’t find a buyer. I can see the place being transformed into a couple of flats and we’ll have to start searching again for a reliable and good repair person. Darn!

  9. June 7, 2014

    He’s the last remaining shop in the terrace, the others have all now had their ground floor facades recreated, and appear to be gentrified.
    I recorded these buildings for the Historic Bldgs Division of the GLC back in the 1970’s (now in the Eng. Heritage archives), when they were just tenements. They had most of their lovely interior details and stair joinery complete. Fabulous examples of the plan and type of houses built just before the Great Fire of London.

  10. June 7, 2014

    I know the terrace well. One of the four houses was the home of Rev Richard Price, the gentle preacher who was so instrumental in shaping the constitution of the rebellious colonies, aka the United States. He lived in Newington Green from 1758 until his death in 1791, and in his dining room, or in the chapel 100 meters away, luminaries and radicals from Tom Paine to Benjamin Franklin came to discuss with the learned minister.
    The person he most influenced was Mary Wollstonecraft, sending her on a new trajectory from schoolteacher to polemicist. He preached equality for all men, at the time of the American and later the French Revolutions: she extended this, and wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman not long after his death.
    More on Richard Price and Newington Green:
    More on Mary Wollstonecraft, including the campaign for a statue on the Green:
    The house next to the cobbler is being gutted and renovated; I was inside a few days ago and the fireplaces and staircase look convincing enough to this untrained eye. I don’t know if the owner intends to live there, or wishes to sell or rent it, but if you have a taste for C17-C18 history, you could do worse than enquire within.

  11. June 8, 2014

    Good to see the work of a Real Shoe Repairer. I thought they were extinct, with just the likes of T*mps*ns on the High Street, with their one-size-fits-all approach to mending. I hope Ahmet Kamil has many working years ahead of him yet.

  12. Cherub permalink
    June 11, 2014

    I wonder what his dad’s shop in Hornchurch was? I used to live there.

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