Monday, March 23, 2009

Cobblers of Brooklyn

With a grant from the Brooklyn Arts Council, photographer Lindsay Blatt takes pictures of the men who repair shoes in Brooklyn.

"During the first year that I lived in New York, I was destroying my shoes at an alarming rate," she says, a testament to the fact that New York is a town often walked. She brought them to a cobbler and quickly "learned that shoes could be mended over and over again, instead of tossing them out."

photo by Lindsay Blatt

She soon fell in love with the cobbler shop. "Each shop is a separate world, and many have been in the same storefront for over 30 years. Each tool, machine, table, everything, is in just the right spot for that repairman. I was obsessed with the microcosms they had built, and haven't seen anything else like it."

At first, it was difficult to win the cobblers' trusts. They promised her only a few minutes of their time. Then she arrived with her large-format camera, "a cumbersome and anachronistic piece of equipment." And the cobblers, living among machines of similar vintage and bulk, warmed up.

photo by Lindsay Blatt

Lindsay recalls, "Once I got there and they saw this giant camera come out, and that I had to get under a dark cloth to focus, they became really interested. The repairmen would come over and ask me to show them how it worked, and they were ecstatic while looking at the Polaroids. Soon enough they were suggesting compositions for the photos, and telling me about how they got into the profession and asking if I was married. They all seemed to have a son that I needed to meet."

"By the end of the shoots, I had usually been there about 3 hours, shared lunch and tea, and knew all about their families. The most satisfying part was last November, when one of the repairmen came to the opening of 'Repair & Shine.' I have a photo of us in front of his portrait, and his son helped to interpret his father's gratitude. After the show I had prints made of each of the guys, and delivered them on my bike. Each of them was appreciative of the work I had done, and invited me to come back anytime."

photo by Lindsay Blatt

I asked her what she thinks will be the future of shoe repair. She said, "I've read a few articles that say this is one business which is doing well in the current economic situation. People are realizing that it is more cost efficient to repair shoes than to get new ones. Unfortunately, I think this is a temporary urban phenomenon. I don't get the impression people are dropping off shoes to be repaired in their local strip mall."

"I believe the main reason that this job won't be around for much longer is that most shoes can't really be repaired. If you buy a pair of sneakers, and the heel starts to wear down, or a hole appears in the toe, it isn't quite fixable. We will lose a great deal if the shoe repairmen vanish. The noble idea of fixing something instead of throwing it away can’t be lost in our society. We must re-learn to make sturdy products from the beginning, ones that are worth fixing when they get worn down."


Boxcar Goods said...

great post...and very budget friendly

Nomi Lubin said...


I worked in a shoe repair shop for four years. Yes, many of the shoes made today are not designed to be repaired. Also, the materials -- soles, heals, etc. -- needed to repair shoes are crazy expensive. Many shoes are made so inexpensively today, that it costs more to repair than replace.

JakeGould said...

Nomi said it better than I could, but I will also add this: Sneakers used to really last a long time. I remember wearing the same pair for nearly 2 years as a kid and they might have been beat but the soles and uppers were still intact...

Flash forward to now, I need to get a new pair every 6 months. The quality of materials is seriously not the same. And it's practically impossible to find a decent pair of sneakers that are truly tough and last.

I bought some Jack Purcells recently and the new Nike construction is horrid. I couldn't believe how quickly they degraded and they are supposedly stronger than classic Chucks.

And you know, older sneakers could actually get some basic repairs made to them.

Shoes/sneakers are truly one thing we all use but we get screwed over on all the time.