Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Shoe Guy's craft a family affair

Skill passed down from generation to generation

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Most of Gary Kozussek's loyal customers don't know his name.

To them, he's just the Shoe Guy. In an era where most of us have accepted planned obsolescence, he repairs things.

Sometimes they end up better than new.

Many people come to Grant Park shopping centre just to see him, get a shoe reheeled, a key cut or a belt stitched.

Kozussek learned his craft from his father, the owner of Alfred's Shoe Repair. His dad introduced him to the man who gave him his first job.

"It's funny. I was young and still trying to figure things out," he says. "He seen a Sear's shoe repair at Polo Park. He started talking to the guy. They're both Austrian and they got along.

"My dad comes home and says, 'Gary, you're going to meet Peter.' I met him, I started my first shift. I thought I could do this for a year or two."

He was 18. He's 46 now with salt-and-pepper hair. The boy is gone. The man still has an engaging enthusiasm for his work.

Kozussek doesn't wear the traditional shoe mender's apron because it was always getting caught on things. He wears jeans and a t-shirt, always black.

His mentor, Peter Salkowsky, was a master craftsman. He didn't cut corners, teaching his apprentice to take his time to get it right. To this day, Kozussek owns a nail gun but won't use it. The soft nails are hammered by hand at his shop.

"Peter taught me everything but I always had my dad to fall back on."

Salkowsky would influence Kozussek's entire career. In 1985, the older man sold his business to Mr. Minit, a chain with thousands of shoe repair stores around the world. In 1987, the older man left the company. Kozussek took over.

In 1999, the Mr. Minit decided to close shop in Winnipeg. The company offered Kozussek and his wife Tammy the chance to buy the business and the equipment.

They had two days to make up their minds. They needed $10,000.

"We didn't have a cent. We said no thanks."

A day later, Kozussek was sharing a cup of coffee with Craig Menzies, the then-owner of the mall's optical shop. The two men were just acquaintances. Kozussek shared his story.

"A little while later, he comes up and asks me my last name. I says 'Why?' He says 'I'm going to borrow you $10,000.' I said, 'What, are you crazy? You're going to borrow $10,000 to someone and you don't even know his last name?' "

The loan was made. The Shoe Guy was in business for himself. He paid back the money in two years.

"I called it The Shoe Guy because that's who I was to my customers. I tell them, 'You got a problem with your shoes, bring it to the shoe guy.' It just stuck."

Gary and Tammy have moved around the mall. They started with a kiosk near what is now a Tim's. From there they had a space around the corner next to Pet Valu. They landed their 470-square-foot store after the pet store expanded.

It was a scary time for the couple. They built the store piece by piece, paying tradesmen as they went. They needed a sign, they got it, covered the cost and moved on to the next job.

Kozussek always knew that diversification was important. In addition to repairing shoes, he stocks a line of shoe-care products. He'll repair just about anything.

"Handbags, holsters, trampolines... you name it. I've fixed it."

He grins broadly when he remembers the oddest thing he repaired.

"I had a customer come in one day and he says, 'I have an emergency. I have a client waiting. I'm willing to pay double.'

"I asked him what he needed fixed. He's says 'It's an emergency. I have a client waiting. I'll pay double.'

"He tells me this three times. I finally say, 'Look, I can't fix it if you don't tell me what you want repaired.' "

Kozussek pauses before delivering the punch line.

"He needed a 100-inch zipper fixed. It was a body bag. When he said he had a customer waiting he meant at the funeral home."

Most of his customers' needs aren't that interesting. It's new heels, insoles and minor repairs that put the bread on his table. He credits Tammy with the artistic work, using her talents to customize items.

"We get a lot of younger customers coming in. They're robbing mom's closet and finding a pair of boots from 30 years ago. They want them repaired. Or they're shopping at Value Village and they need something fixed."

Other customers buy shoes that don't quite fit and bring them to the Shoe Guy.

"Maybe it's half a size too small. Maybe they need the strap moved. I'm very adamant. If the shoe doesn't fit don't buy it."

Their tiny shop is crammed with items in need of repair. Customers pay up front, no exceptions. The noise of the finishing machine is relentless.

His clientele is so loyal that he's had boots shipped from Florida for repair. A customer recently sent him a postcard from France after he did a last-minute repair before her trip.

He says he might have wanted to be a police officer when he was younger. He didn't finish high school. Life got in the way. He has no regrets.

"Not a single one. I've got a great partner that stuck with me through all the hard times. We make a living. It's an honest living. You get to work with your hands. Every day's a challenge."

He has enjoyed his career so much that he's training his son Simon in the craft.

"It's something to be proud of. It's a great trade."

lindor.reynolds@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 21, 2009 B1

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About Lindor Reynolds

National Newspaper Award winner Lindor Reynolds began work at the Free Press as a 17-year-old proofreader. It was a rough introduction to the news business.

Many years later, armed with a university education and a portfolio of published work, she was hired as a Free Press columnist. During her 20-plus years on the job she has written for every section in the paper, with the exception of Business. She’ll get around to them some day.

Lindor has received considerable recognition for her writing. Her awards include the Will Rogers Humanitarian Award, the National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ general interest award and the North American Travel Journalists Association top prize.
Her work on Internet luring led to an amendment to the Criminal Code of Canada and her coverage of the child welfare system prompted a change to Manitoba Child and Family Services Act to make the safety of children paramount.

She has earned three citations of merit for the Michener Award for Meritorious Public Service in Journalism and has been awarded a Distinguished Alumni commendation from the University of Winnipeg. Lindor was also named a YMCA/YWCA  Woman of Distinction.

She is married with four daughters. If her house was on fire and the kids and dog were safe, she’d grab her passport.
 
lindor.reynolds@freepress.mb.ca

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