To walk into Al’s Shoe Service at the Mount Prospect Metra station is to step back in time.
The walls remind customers and visitors of the rich history of a business that began when Al DeAngelo opened a shop in Chicago in 1937.
There are pictures of Al with his son, current owner Larry DeAngelo, at the previous store location in Franklin Park. And you can see some of the same repair equipment from that location, including a machine known as the Landis finisher.
“These are 100-year-old hammers,” Larry DeAngelo says of some of the older tools in his shop. “My father used these hammers all his life.”
DeAngelo is a survivor, the keeper of a tradition. But die-hards like him — while in demand, especially for high-end shoes that require tender loving care — are becoming a rare breed.
His peer group in the suburbs shrunk again recently, when Phil’s Shoe Repair ended its 20-year run in Buffalo Grove’s Chase Plaza shopping center.
It’s a sign of the times that has been repeating itself across the country for years. According to the Shoe Service Institute of America, shoe repair shops have dwindled from 100,000 nationwide in the 1930s to 15,000 in 1997 to only about 5,000 today.
Jim McFarland, historian and past president of the Shoe Service Institute of America, said, “Well, the ones that are open are very busy, for the most part, except New York City. They’re not back to normal.”
McFarland, who owns McFarland’s Shoe Repair in Lakeland, Florida, said the challenge is getting people to learn the trade.
“Probably 80% of the people out there doing it — I’m 57 — are my age and up. There’s not a lot of people under 40 doing this,” he said.
He said plenty of people are buying quality shoes.
But, he said: “Now we don’t have enough craftsmen. Trying to find people and train them, that’s the tricky part.”
He illustrated the challenge using his own situation.
“I have three kids. They all went to college. That’s what happened to a lot of kids in this industry,” he said.
Asked about the solution, he said, “You’d have to find an apprentice.”
He said: “It’s a perfect opportunity if there is somebody out there that wants to be an entrepreneur, to go in and find a shop where the cobbler is 70 years old plus. A lot of them want to retire at some point. They can learn the trade and then just take over the business and make payments to the cobblers. It’s a perfect buying opportunity for a lot of young people.”
“If you have a good shop and you run it right, you can make a good living. There is a lot of opportunity right now, in this industry, if somebody wants to jump on it.”
“The people who fix shoes they (have gotten) older,” said Arturo Ramirez, manager of Randhurst Shoe Repair in downtown Arlington Heights. “Nobody wants to do the shoe repairs anymore.”
Ramirez, who lives in the same building as the shop, began in the shoe repair business nearly 40 years ago, after arriving in the United States from Mexico.
DeAngelo, an accomplished jazz musician who’s been known to give commuters impromptu performances from his shop, said not many young people see shoe repair as a good way to make a living. “And this is not an easy way,” he said. “A lot of people that went into this business went in because their family had it before them. Like me.”
Besides the shrinking number of shoe repair professionals, other factors are leading to the decline in repair shops nationwide.
Ray Tignino, a shoe supplier and Larry DeAngelo’s friend for 48 years, said much of the footwear made today is manufactured from synthetic materials and pressed together instead of hand stitched. That makes them particularly difficult to repair.
“Automation has made these shoes easier to make, but they’re harder to fix and they’re not the (same) quality,” Tignino said. “I wouldn’t put my feet in them.”
“And the other thing that’s really made it different now is formal is out,” he added. “People aren’t dressing up, so a lot of the good shoes aren’t around right now.”
Although their numbers are falling, some still recognize the value of a good shoe repair shop. That includes the village of Mount Prospect.
When Al’s Shoe Service was displaced as a result of the redevelopment of the Prospect Place shopping center, where it had operated since 2004, the village found him a new space in a former coffee shop at the train station.
“We wanted to get creative to figure out a way to keep Larry in town,” Village Manager Michael Cassady said. “It’s an iconic business in downtown Mount Prospect. Part of the solution to redeveloping downtown is definitely to retain our key businesses, so we got a little creative. We had an underutilized space in our train station that just seemed like a Norman Rockwell match.”
Tignino, whose father also was in the shoe business and knew DeAngelo’s father, said the secret of the shop’s longevity is, “It comes from the heart.”
“If you’re good at this and you know what you’re doing, you’re going to survive,” DeAngelo added. “People will find you, because there still are a good portion of working, conscientious people who wear high-end footwear, and somebody’s got to fix it.”