Fine leather shoes are beautiful, comfortable and can last a lifetime. But to maintain their timeless quality, they do need constant care. Our advice? Make friends with your local cobbler! Here, Yvonne, our Customer Experience Lead, sits down with our friend Pat and Luigi from Expert Shoe Clinic in Edmonton. This father-son duo has been running their shoe repair business for over 40 years. Listen in on their conversation…
Yvonne: Poppy Barley has been a long-time customer at the Expert Shoe Clinic. I take my own shoes to you and love that you make my shoes look brand new! How did the Expert Shoe Clinic come to be?
Luigi: Dad (Pat) has been doing this all his life. I got into it as a family business. Expert Shoe Clinic was started by a gentleman, Bill “Pop” Kostiuk. He founded the Expert Shoe Clinic in the 1950s. Bill heard of dad when dad was working for a different company and wanted to bring him on board. Because dad didn’t know English at the time, Bill wrote a letter and dad took it home to his brother-in-law to see what the opportunity was. Bill wanted dad to come be a partner with him. When they finally met up, dad thought that he wouldn’t be a good fit — he’s an immigrant with not a lot of money. Bill responded, no problem, I’m not asking for money, I want you to work for me and become my partner.
Yvonne: How did you get involved with the whole business?
Luigi: I’m 4th generation in my family to do this. My dad does this, my uncles, his brothers, their father and the father before him, was in the business as well. So, going back a long, long time since back in Italy.
So, I got into this in grade 6, I was 11 years old. I started working during my summer holidays, but at first I was a bit reluctant, all my friends were out playing and riding bikes and I was stuck in the shop. But after the first week, dad paid me and I was like, there’s something to this! I have slurpee money and I don’t have to go ask mom and dad for allowance.
The first two, three years I would learn by watching, doing little jobs here and there. As I progressed, I just did more and more. Then right after high school I went straight into the business full time.
Yvonne: Did you ever think that you’d end up working in shoe repair?
Never. In my next life I would come back as an airline pilot. I love this because of the people I meet. You meet everybody, in terms of what they do from A to Z — from a garbage collector, to a lawyer, to a window washer, anybody who wears shoes. Every shoe that comes through has a great story behind it.
Yvonne: You never thought you would get into the business, but here you are! What excites you about it every day?
Luigi: The work is the one thing. What drives my passion is when customers come in, distressed about their damaged shoes and getting to see the “wow” on their faces when they come back to pick up their shoes. That is where I get my satisfaction. I love seeing the joy in customers when they see their favourite shoes are brought back to life.
Yvonne: I definitely see the care you put into the restoration of shoes. You have rescued a couple of my boots and I know I am extremely happy to see them restored. Is there anything typical about your work?
Luigi: Some things are typical, but there are just some days you don’t know what will walk through the door. Things like putting on heels or polishing shoes is just a job. Other things that are typical day-to-day is resoling, fixing belts and even handbags. But what I love, is the challenge of being able to bring a shoe back to life.
Yvonne: With fine leather shoes, come a lot of care. What advice do you have for our customers for caring for their shoes from the time they receive?
Luigi: It doesn’t matter where they get their shoes, if they come with a leather sole, right from the get-go, put on a protection sole. Cleaning and protecting are two of the major necessities of the leather. Using the right products and leather protectors. If you do get salt stains on them, wipe them down with a damp cloth, then spray with an all-leather protect.
When customers are not wearing their shoes, I highly recommend using shoe or boot trees to always hold the form. We live in a very dry climate here in Alberta and cleaning, conditioning, and protecting is super important.
Yvonne: We do get a lot of questions about why we use leather soles. Could you shed some light on that?
What I tell customers is that with a leather sole, you can do more with the shoe in terms of repairs. Other manufacturers who use manmade materials are what I call a disposable shoe. Once they wear out, you are going to throw them away.
Yvonne: Interesting. When is it the right time to take the shoes for sole repair? What is the maintenance after putting on the rubber soles?
Luigi: Always periodically check for wear and tear on the soles. If you notice that any holes appearing in the rubber sole, bring them to a cobbler for repair immediately. The whole premise behind the rubber protection sole is that you are never walking on the original sole. When the rubber soles wear out, take it off and replace it. You are never walking on the original, which is why the shoes will last you longer. It is always a good idea to clean and spray the part of the leather sole that is not covered.
Yvonne: And how often should someone take their shoes to a cobbler?
Luigi: Cleaning and spraying, customer can do it on their own. But if they don’t have the time or patience for it, they can bring it in. If you have a dust bag for the shoes and keeping it in shoe boxes when not in use will help.
During the summers, for boot, I would stuff the foot with paper or plastic bags. Newspaper to hold the form a bit — small things you can do to preserve the boots.
For salt stains you can never really fully prevent them. Just wipe them down with a damp cloth after walking in them in the snow, spray them, then polish them the next day or use a shoe cream. Then spray again.
Yvonne: How do you attract customers to your business and how do you connect with them?
Luigi: I like to develop a relationship with right from the first time they come in. I want to provide them with a pleasant experience and build trust with me, knowing that whatever shoes, handbags, and belts the leave, they can trust me with them. It is all built on good name and reputation. Word of mouth has been the biggest driver for our business. It is important customers know I will do the best for them and make their problems become my problems, so that the customers don’t have to worry about anything.
Social media is another way to get people to see the things that we do. I really enjoy using Instagram.
Yvonne: Unfortunately we can’t send all our customers across Canada to you, but what advice do you have for customers looking for a cobbler?
The best way is to start by calling wherever they bought their shoes from. Ask them who they use locally. Online information and reviews are really helpful. If you don’t get good vibes from a person, it might be a good indication whether or not they will work. Always look for honesty in a cobbler. For me, if something is not worth fixing, I’m not going to do it. I’m not going to take your money when I know it’s not going to last. I will tell my customers, shoes are done, go get another pair. Or tell them what the cost will be, but the shoes won’t last.
Yvonne: Thank you for your time!
Luigi: Thank you.