Sylva shoe duo upholds the last of a dying trade
Mike Fitzgerald rarely skipped a beat as he darted spryly between his cobbler’s bench and the vintage, grime-coated machines anchoring his narrow shoe repair shop.
It’s hard to fathom, but Fitzgerald knows every nook and cranny of the controlled chaos. Floor-to-ceiling shelves brim with a disheveled array of tack boxes, heaps of leather scraps, and a small army of polish and dye cans.
No inch of space is sacred here. Throngs of brushes swing from nails. Metal files magnet to the side of a tattered box fan. A battalion of clamps hang on where they can. The low ceiling even doubles as a bulletin board, littered with the business cards of suppliers above the wall-mounted phone.
But Fitzgerald isn’t daunted, not anymore at least.
“About 30 years ago when I took over this place, I thought ‘Wow, I’ll never learn my way around all this stuff,’” recalled Fitzgerald, owner of Fitzgerald’s Shoe Repair in downtown Sylva.
But without fail, he deftly scoops up just the right rasp or awl from the jumbled tool pile strewn on his worktable. There’s no point in a tidy pegboard. He’ll need that leather grommet puncher or those stiletto pliers again sooner or later, so home is wherever they land.
“A guy came in here one day and started laughing and I said ‘What’s so funny?’ and he said ‘I finally found a place that was messier than my garage,’” Fitzgerald said. “But if we need to find a part in here, we know where it is.”
He swept his eyes over a hodgepodge of heel types stacked in sundry piles on his supply shelf, sizing up the inventory with a quick glance.
“Those cowboy heels?” Fitzgerald said, riffling through one of the mounds. “I’ve only got one pair left in this size before more come in.”
This hole-in-the-wall shoe repair shop tucked away on downtown Sylva’s Back Street is the last of its kind. Quick on the draw with shoe puns, Fitzgerald admits he’s a “dying” breed.
As the only shoe repair shop left in N.C.’s seven western counties, Fitzgerald’s draws a steady stream of customers from Murphy to Maggie Valley with every kind of fix-it job you can imagine. From Gucci handbags to farm boots, Fitzgerald can — and has — done it all.
He bought the business on a whim nearly 30 years ago after upheaving his family from Tampa, Florida.
“We had a corporate takeover and we all got our walking papers,” Fitzgerald recounted. “I didn’t like urban life anyway so we sold our stock and sold our house and we moved here.”
The former owner, Vernon Browning, had worked in the shop since he was 17. After nearly 40 years, he was ready to hang up the last, and in moseyed Fitzgerald.
Browning had one condition before striking a deal, however.
“He said ‘I got to make sure you can do the work,’” Fitzgerald recalled. “I worked with Vernon for three days, and he said, ‘Yeah, you’re a natural.’ You had to have a knack for knowing how to put things together.”
Fitzgerald knew almost nothing about fixing shoes then — save his three-day apprenticeship. But with a wife and four young kids, he needed a job.
“And I liked the idea of working with my hands,” Fitzgerald said.
He wrote Browning a check for $15,000 — all the cash he had left to his name — and pocketed the keys. He decided he could learn the trade, but was concerned he wouldn’t fit in as an outsider. The shoe shop dates back to the 1910s — before there was a store front it was based out of a covered wagon — and had been in the same family ever since.
“I said ‘I’m not from here. Will the locals be angry with you?’” Fitzgerald had asked Browning. “It took me about a year-and-a-half to get everybody on my side.”
He paused in the story, reached his hand up into the ceiling, and retrieved a stack of papers — an odd storage space but perfectly convenient and one of the few places that stays clean, he pointed out.
As Fitzgerald flipped through his stash of historic photos, he relished the fact there’s been a shoe shop on Back Street for over a century.
Fitzgerald quickly became a local fixture, and his Florida roots long since forgiven.
“Adopted son? I don’t know if they would call me that...more like a degenerate,” Fitzgerald joked.
Last man standing
Fitzgerald and his trusty sidekick Mark Parks spend the day digging their way through an unrelenting mound of work boots, dress boots, combat boots, cowboy boots, hiking boots, loafers, sporty sandals, dressy sandals, pumps, flats, Oxfords, bucks, sneakers, stacked heels, stiletto heels, and dozens more.
A revolving door of customers from a 60-mile radius trickle in and out of Fitzgerald’s over the course of day, with some making the pilgrimage from much farther afield.
“We have a regular customer up in Burnsville who thinks we’re the cat’s meow,” Fitzgerald said.
Any given day, Fitzgerald has shoes in his queue from Hayesville to Hendersonville.
“I’ve had people tell me you can’t retire, we won’t let you,” Fitzgerald said.
At 65, Fitzgerald plans to put in a few more years. But sooner or later, he’ll bow out.
He didn’t want his shop to meet the same demise as the ones in Waynesville, Franklin and Murphy — closed and gone, not for want of customers, but there was no one to take them over.
He ticked off the names of his former compatriots. There was Larry in Waynesville, Joe in Franklin, Frank in Murphy, Tommy in Hazelwood. When they aged out, there was no one to take over their shops.
“So they all just closed,” Fitzgerald said.
For 25 years, Fitzgerald was the whippersnapper of the mountain shoe repairmen. But now he was the last man standing.
With each hometown shoe repair shop that closed, Fitzgerald’s business grew. Customers from a seven-county area began journeying to his shop with their busted heels, detached soles and unraveled stitching.
“I was working seven days a week after Waynesville closed down,” he said.
And it wasn’t just shoes being carried in. A man from Haywood County came in last month with a ripped lawnmower bag.
“Instead of going out and buying a new $150 grass catcher, we can repair it for them and keep them going,” Fitzgerald said.
Just then, in walked Gail Thomas. The Franklin resident learned about Fitzgerald’s after complaining to a friend that her pocket book strap was too long.
“She said ‘Well you might could take it up to Fitzgerald’s and get the handle shortened,’” Thomas recalled. “I had no idea you were here but I’m telling everybody when I get back to Franklin.”
For 25 years, Fitzgerald was a one-man-band. But he realized he needed an apprentice, someone who could learn the trade and take over the shop when the time came.
“You wouldn’t want to leave this whole area without any resource for a repair,” Fitzgerald said.
Enter Parks. A long-time family friend, Parks was working as a handyman when Fitzgerald approached him. The two soon became an unstoppable shoe duo.
After three years of working by Fitzgerald’s side, Parks has learned from the best.
“Well, he’s still trying to teach me,” Parks joked.
Like they’re executing a finely honed waltz, Fitzgerald and Parks slip about the tight quarters without bumping elbows, passing off tools to each other without having to ask.
The tightly-packed shop puts a sardine can to shame, but it has its advantages. Nothing is too far from reach at least.
A couple paces left puts them at the 5-in-1 trimmer and beveller. A couple paces right, they’re at the leather splitter. A quick pivot to the rear, and they’re at the wire nailer.
Some days, they not only have to dodge each other, but their loyal base of loafers. A sign recently debuted in the shop that reads, “We reserve the right to boot you out.”
“But it doesn’t help, does it Mark?” Fitzgerald quipped.
Nothing but time
Just then, the door chimed. Cheryl Carlton made a trip down the mountain from Highlands with tattered men’s dress shoes.
“They’re so far gone he was ready to write them off but I said ‘Let me take them in to the shoe shop, he is like magic,’” Carlton said.
As she displayed the nearly worn-through soles, Carlton popped the most frequently heard question in Fitzgerald’s.
“How soon can I get them?” Carlton asked, oblivious to the perpetual tide of shoes out of sight behind the counter.
Parks peeked around the corner at the bulging shelves buried by incoming shoes from floor to ceiling. There’s a shelf for every day of the week, which is how they gauge their workflow.
“When we fill a shelf up, that’s all the work we can do that day,” Fitzgerald said.
A quick gander revealed more than 100 pairs already ahead of her, with the shelves plumb full until next week. Parks broke the news.
“So there’s no chance you can do it today?” Carlton asked, explaining they were leaving on a trip to Florida.
Parks paused, then promised to try.
“Even if Mark has to work all night we’ll get it,” Fitzgerald joked. “I don’t mind volunteering Mark. I won’t lose any sleep over it.”
The men jest and banter like this all day. It keeps their work fun and passes the time quicker. They’re two peas in a pod.
“We think alike, we act alike, we cut up alike, we like kids alike,” Fitzgerald said.
Ditto that. Both men have six kids. Mark’s range from age 4 to 13. Fitzgerald’s are grown now, although a special needs son who needs round-the-clock care still lives at home. Despite having their hands full with a severely handicapped son of their own, Fitzgerald and his wife adopted three of their six children over the years, all of them with special needs as well.
“That’s what life’s about,” Fitzgerald said.
Soon, the door swung open again. Fitzgerald heard a familiar voice boom out. It was one of their regulars, John Glenn. There’s no telling what kind of work Glenn might drag in. His last job was setting grommets into a cargo strap.
But today, he swung a pair of boots onto the counter.
“John, it’ll be next week,” Parks leveled.
“Do I look barefoot?” Glenn shot back.
After getting his claim tag, Glenn followed Parks into the workshop and settled into a chair behind the walking foot sewer — which doubles as the visitor’s chair — to chat awhile.
“People come from a hell of a long way off and not just because he’s the only game in town,” Glenn said. “The quality of the work is exceptional.”
But that’s not the full story either. Popping into Fitzgerald’s is one of those happy errands, where the nostalgic smell of varnish and leather means a brief escape from the modern world.
By late afternoon, Fitzgerald’s knuckles and hand creases were caked in black grime. At day’s end, he’ll scrub up with kerosene and lava soap, but until then, there’s no sense in it.
Meanwhile, the shop floor bore the telltale scraps of the day’s work — bits of brown leather, heel shavings, rubber sole cutouts, strands of thread.
“Sweeping is a waste of time if you are just going to mess it up again,” Fitzgerald said.
Despite the layer of grit and gunk that sifts into every crevice, the shop sees a steady line of high-dollar, high-fashion items — from Channel and Gucci handbags to Louis Vuitton men’s dress shoes.
“We handle $400 footwear,” Parks said.
Fitzgerald does a booming business with second-homers who gather up their shoe repairs back home and bring them in when they’re visiting the mountains.
The shoe shop has been commissioned by the Western Carolina University theater department, altering and repairing shoes for the stage wardrobes. The Appalachian State theater has gotten in on the act, shipping shoes to Fitzgerald’s all the way from Boone to re-dye in the right colors for a show.
Fitzgerald is highly sought for his specialized craft of adding height to shoes for people with one leg slightly longer than the other. He blends the built-up sole so keenly that the finished job is nearly imperceptible.
One of Parks’ specialties is leatherwork. He’s repaired steer horn mounts, darned snowshoes, mended harnesses, and even restored an antique saddle.
“We’ve been known to horse around,” Fitzgerald said, trotting out one of his famous puns.
Among Parks’ more unusual pieces: a pair of traditional Alaskan snow blind goggles.
“There’s no business like snow business,” Fitzgerald chimed.
In between shoe repairs, Parks carves out time to make custom knife sheaths.
“Oh bowie,” said Fitzgerald.
From leather ax handles — “another hatchet job” — to attaché’s, there’s “no case they can’t handle.”
Unfortunately, some jobs are just so time-consuming they have to be turned down. Even if the owner’s willing to pay, the shoe duo would get too backed up to take them on.
“One of the worst things and most time-consuming to repair is when a dog chews something up. Especially Birkenstocks. They love ‘em,” Fitzgerald said.
“We don’t even have a pair of Birkenstocks in the house right now do we?” Parks said. “We must be living right.”
Some shoes are so far gone, Fitzgerald doesn’t think they’re worth saving.
“Sometimes we are honest with people, you are wasting your time trying to fix this,” Fitzgerald said.
But shoes often have a special attachment for people, and they’ll go to the end of the earth to get a few more wears out of them.
Some people try home remedies like hot glue and staple guns, which usually just makes matters worse.
“One of the biggest problems we have is cleaning up repairs people try to do themselves,” Fitzgerald said.
There are a few jobs that are downright impossible for the shoe duo. So few, Fitzgerald can remember them.
“It was impossible to do the shafts of her boots with mink, it was just impossible,” he said, shaking his head with lingering regret.
The men occasionally work weekends to clear out a backlog, or to focus on a special job.
“If there’s an antique gun holster we’re going to work on, you need to concentrate on what you are doing and not get interrupted,” Fitzgerald said.
As if Fitzgerald’s not busy enough, he spends his free time fulfilling his civic duty as the mayor of Dillsboro, where he’s served on the town board for a dozen years, and has also been roped in to serving as the chair of the Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority.
Back to basics
A shoe repairman has to know his way around more than leather and rubber. He’s got to be a mechanic to boot.
Fitzgerald pointed to the biggest machine in the shop: a long axle mounted with sundry brushes, sanders and grinders. Called a line finisher, the axle fires up like a whirling dervish when Fitzgerald flips the switch, creating a blur of turning wheels.
The workhorse of a shoe repair shop, a new one runs for $10,000. That’s why Fitzgerald better keep this 1940s-era one going.
The shop is packed with vintage machines that require constant tinkering to keep them humming.
“Sometimes one of these machines will get a little out of kilter. That leaves one of us to handle the shoe volume while the other works on a machine half the day,” Fitzgerald said, wondering how he got by without Parks.
One of the few things you won’t find in Fitzgerald’s is a computer. Fitzgerald simply phones in his supply orders, tacks their invoice to a clipboard when they come in and mails off a check on bookkeeping day.
“They are old school like we are,” Fitzgerald said of his suppliers.
The newest gadget on the premises is the sandwich press, a contraption that appeared after Parks joined the team. Thrifty by nature, the men bring their lunch from home every day.
“There’s no out to lunch sign here,” Fitzgerald noted.
But with real estate at a premium, they were pressed for where to put it. They decided to go vertical, balancing it atop a minifridge in a side nook. Once it toppled and broke, but Fitzgerald had grown so fond of the newfangled addition that he replaced it in short order.
“You get tired of peanut butter and jelly and cold ham and cheese sandwiches, especially in the wintertime,” Fitzgerald said.
“Plus if your socks get wet you can take them off and dry them really quick,” Parks quipped.
When the men tire of cutting up with each other, they set their sights on the purveyor of Eric’s Fish Market two doors down, who’s always game for a good prank. Last fall, Fitzgerald put his artistic talents to work on a discarded pile of shoe heels, lapping and fusing them into the shape of a fish. They hung it on the fish market’s door as a surprise, and shopkeeper Jim Collins fired back with the cardboard sign — “We reserve the right to boot you out” — a handy thing to hang above the visitor’s chair.
Fitzgerald soon began crafting a retaliation, an oyster shell made from melted crepe rubber with faux barnacles glopped on for texture.
“It’s a secret formula of super glue and baking soda,” Fitzgerald revealed.
It seemed like the perfect day to present it, so Parks took a break to pop next door.
“Is this made of shoe parts?” Collins asked, before doing an impromptu ventriliquy skit with his new-found friend.
As quitting time drew near, Fitzgerald turned to Parks.
“Should we pull the shoes?” he asked.
Parks sidled up to the burgeoning shelf of incoming shoes and began the nightly ritual of laying out the next day’s work.
“We like to scope it out and see what we are up against. In case I want to call in sick and make Mark do it,” Fitzgerald quipped.
Parks began shuttling the shoes from the shelf and amassing them on the workroom floor.
“Looks like tomorrow is going to be half-sole and heel day,” Parks said.
Fitzgerald was quick on the draw when asked his favorite part of his job.
“I used to like the coffee breaks until I quit drinking coffee,” Fitzgerald said.
The second ask didn’t go much better.
“Collecting money,” he said.
But the third try, Fitzgerald got serious — a rare moment for him — and decided his favorite part had nothing to do with shoes, but the people he got to interact with every day.
“We live with the people we work for. You always get a ‘howdy’ at the grocery store or at Walmart. It is enjoyable knowing everybody in town,” Fitzgerald said. “My wife always asks, ‘Is there anywhere we can go people don’t know you?’”