‘Shoe repair stores used to be a good way to make a living. Then the pandemic sent corporate workers home," began a recent online news article.
The report went on to quote the 67-year-old owner of a decades-old, shoe-repair shop in New York City who bluntly stated, "Few need repairs… anymore. Business is dead."
Things aren’t much better in London, Ont. A related story published in late January touched on the proprietor of a shoe-repair shop there who lamented traffic has plummeted from around 40 customers per day to just three or four.
"I had a thriving business. I don’t know whether to cry or give up," he said.
Closer to home, Nikolay Karapenev and his wife, Genoveva Karapeneva, owners of Nik’s Shoe Repair at 79 St. Anne’s Rd., agree their profession has taken a substantial hit during the last two years, what with so many people having traded in their office cubicle for a spot in the living or dining room.
"It’s hard to wear out your shoes when you’re not getting dressed up to go to work," says Nikolay, who together with his wife relocated to Winnipeg from their native Bulgaria in 2016, and opened Nik’s 12 months later.
The last two years haven’t been all doom and gloom, pipes in their daughter Antoniya, who came to Canada with her husband in 2003, and presently assists her parents, who couldn’t speak a lick of English when they arrived in Winnipeg, with phone inquiries and the shop’s Facebook page.
"People are spending more time at home, it’s true, but what that’s also done is give them a chance to sort through their closets and find pairs of shoes they completely forgot about," she says, standing behind the counter next to her mother while her dad, dressed casually in a T-shirt and sweat pants, attends to a customer whose winter boots appear to be missing a couple eyelets.
"Occasionally those types of things need a new upper or whatever, so they hand them to my parents, to see if they can bring them back to life."
Nikolay and Genoveva, in their early 60s, are originally from Silistra, a picturesque town situated along the southern bank of the Danube River. Prior to the fall of communism in their country in 1990, Nikolay was employed by the government to affix heel tips to high-heeled shoes, a task that required him to hammer a tiny, squared-off piece of metal into the top lift, or heel cap, of a shoe to make it more durable.
"During communism they were not allowed to open a private business," Antoniya explains. "As soon as democracy came, they were able to buy the equipment to make the metal lids (themselves) and opened a business together."
After establishing GAN — an acronym for Genoveva, Antoniya and Nikolay — inside a converted house on a street named for Bulgarian national figure Lyuben Karavelov (1834-89), Nikolay and Genoveva taught themselves everything there is to know, pretty much, about cobbling. He gained expertise at replacing rubber soles and repairing scuffs and scratches on leather, while she grew adept at fixing zippers, not only on boots but on luggage, apparel, insulated coolers, you name it.
Nikolay and Genoveva, parents of one, had a steady clientele. But following the birth of their only grandchild in 2011, they began paying more attention to their daughter, who had been coaxing them to join her family in Canada.
"Since leaving myself, I’d only been back to Bulgaria a handful of times," Antoniya says, putting her arm around her mother’s shoulders. "I didn’t want our son to grow up not knowing his grandparents, so I kept telling them to come, too. It took a few years to finally convince them, then a few more years to get the paperwork done."
One of the first things the couple did after moving to Winnipeg was sign up for evening English classes, not that they didn’t have a willing-and-able teacher at the ready: Daniel, their grandson, is fluent in English and Bulgarian. Six months after their arrival Nikolay, who can also get by in Russian, got hired at a shoe-repair shop located inside Grant Park Shopping Centre. Prior to that he had sat down with the owner of the Leather Patch on Academy Road, except when that fellow asked if he had experience with zippers, he replied not much, but he knew somebody who did.
Genoveva chuckles, saying she’d made a promise to herself before coming to Canada that her repair days were behind her. Nonetheless, she paid a visit to the Leather Patch, where she was hired on the spot.
Nikolay remained at Grant Park until January 2017, at which point his boss chose not to renew his lease. That settled it, the two decided; it was time once again to get a place of their own.
"They basically laid a map out on a table and marked down where all the shoe-repair shops in the city were, so they wouldn’t end up being too close to somebody else," Antoniya says, adding what was most astonishing about the 1,000-square-foot space they eventually acquired, a former art-supply store directly adjacent to a Thai restaurant, is that the exterior was painted the same shade of violet as the shop they operated in Bulgaria.
While one might assume that repairing shoes in eastern Europe wouldn’t be much different than repairing shoes in Canada, that would be a bit of a miscalculation. For example, there are precisely zero golf courses in Silistra (that, according to an online golf course directory) so it’s little surprise Nikolay had never replaced a cleat or spike on a pair of golf shoes before.
Also, equestrian sports weren’t overly popular in their part of the world, so overhauling a pair of riding boots was completely foreign to him, as well. (We were initially confused when he spoke of repairing horseshoes; "You mean the metal kind attached to a horse’s hoof?" we asked. That’s when he shook his head, and reached over for a pair of tall, English-style, leather boots to indicate precisely what he meant.)
"Steel-toe shoes are another thing they didn’t see much of back home," their daughter continues. "And rubber climbing shoes. There is a (indoor climbing facility) in the city that was shipping all of theirs to Calgary to be fixed, because nobody in town was doing it. My dad told them he’d give it a try for free, so we’re just waiting to see how that turns out."
Genoveva smiles when a visitor comments that their workspace looks — how can we put this gently? — somewhat lived-in. (In addition to tools and projects that appear to be scattered haphazardly, there is also a picture on a back wall of St. Nicholas of Sofia, a hero of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, next to a pair of Canadian flags, the latter of which have been proudly displayed since the summer of 2020, when the couple received their Canadian citizenship during a Zoom ceremony.)
"Things might seem a bit messy," Genoveva concurs, "but don’t try to move anything. My husband knows exactly where everything is, all the time."
Another thing; remember Antoniya mentioning customers who’ve rediscovered old kicks as one of the few positives in regard to COVID? Apparently, there is a second silver lining. Scores of people became first-time dog owners during the pandemic and, as it turned out, many of those pooches took an immediate shine to their owner’s footwear.
"We’ve definitely seen an increase in shoes that have been chewed by dogs," Antoniya says, scrolling through her phone to find before-and-after shots of a pair of Blundstones her dad worked on recently.
"It’s not just sewing and stitching, what my parents do. It’s art, almost, how they’re able to take something that was practically destroyed and make it look brand new again."
For more information, go to www.facebook.com/NiksShoeRepair
David Sanderson writes about Winnipeg-centric restaurants and businesses.
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.