Afana Shoe is a modest Main Street storefront, a wee shop with a few pairs of boots and shoes in the window, decades-old machinery in the back and freedom for hundreds of Canadians inside.
For 60 years, Afana has made custom footwear for people with mild to severe foot problems, caused by everything from illness to accident. Some customers had polio or experienced the side-effects of diabetes, muscular dystrophy or rarities such as elephantiasis. Other clients have unusually long or wide feet. All the footwear is built by hand. In some cases, Afana makes it possible for clients to walk again.
On the lighter side of their business, they've made boots for David Bowie, members of KISS and more than a few professional wrestlers. In the early 1980s, open-minded owner Walter Afanasiev made high-heel shoes and boots for transvestites.
The store will close in a matter of weeks unless third-generation owner Lisa Afanasiev can find a new shoemaker. Longtime employee Fred Manalastas is 68. He goes home to the Philippines for three months every winter. Afanasiev's been searching for a new tradesman since she took over the business nearly three years ago. No one local has the necessary training and Manalastas doesn't speak English well enough to mentor a new employee. He has a skilled shoemaker son back home, but he and his wife can't afford to sponsor him into Canada.
Afanasiev has started to break the bad news to her longtime customers.
"These shoes are custom-made, like a wedding dress," says Afanasiev, 54. "We can make one pair a day. It's very Old World. These aren't shoes you can just buy in a store."
They're pricey, averaging $1,200 a pair. Insurance covers a portion for some clients.
The business was started by her grandfather, Leon, and passed on to her father, Walter. The men came to Canada from the former Yugoslavia in 1952. They had diplomas in orthopedic shoemaking. Their skill made them invaluable to Winnipeggers who need custom footwear.
Afanasiev has a letter written by a late customer who had severe deformities in her feet. The shoemaker built ice skates, in-line skates and even a pair of Adidas-like runners when the girl was a teen.
"I want to thank you for your patience and understanding," Sharon Johannessen wrote in 1994, "and would also like to thank (you) for making my life worthwhile. I'll always love you."
Longtime customer Bob Hunt, now 80, had his first pair of custom shoes made by Walter Afanasiev in 1970. Polio left him with one foot smaller than the other.
"I used to buy a pair of shoes in the early days and pound the heck out of one of them with a hammer to make it fit," he recalls. "Walter just did a super job."
He's not sure where he'll get his next pair of boots.
"It's not like I can just go into a store and buy them."
Leon Afanasiev had a shop on Ellice Avenue. When it closed, Walter started making shoes in his Kent Road garage. He eventually opened a shop on Portage Avenue. When he died in 2005, Walter left the company in the hands of his two adult children. Lisa's brother, Phil, ran it for a time and then she took over, hoping to come up with a succession plan. The former social worker moved the shop to Main Street so it would be closer to her home.
"I don't need more business," she says. "The waiting list is already three or four months long. My father had five or six people working for him. I've just got a full-time shoemaker and a part-time pattern maker."
Her dad's old sewing machines are still in use. Walter repaired them himself. His daughter hires someone now.
New clients have their feet properly measured and their specific needs noted. Their feet are traced on brown paper, the starting point for the pattern maker. Wooden "lasts" are built up and plaster casts made for the insoles. Every last is numbered so a client can order new shoes from anywhere in the world. Lasts hang like bunches of bananas in the back of the shop.
Afanasiev holds one up, the top splayed like a clown's shoe. The size 11.5, 5E feet belong to a local teacher. Without custom shoes, she couldn't go to work.
"For most people, these are medical needs," she says. "I think it's a health service. Some people can't even get up and go to the bathroom without their shoes."
Afana has a contract with the Department of National Defence, custom-making boots and shoes for soldiers. She holds up one nearly completed combat boot, large enough to hold two average-length feet.
She's frustrated she can't find anyone to take over the business and feels sorry for her customers.
"I'm looking for a miracle," she says. "We're not important to people who don't need custom shoes. The ones who do? I just don't know where they'll go. We're like gold to them."