He’s back. After about a one-year hiatus thanks to the pandemic, Charles the Cobbler is again open. Owner Bill Wells and his wife Donna quietly reopened the shoe repair store, now located three doors away from the original store in Krebs Plaza, on Oct. 18, 2021.
What brought Wells back? “I got tired of doing nothing,” said the 84-year-old.
During the height of the pandemic, he sent customers to Ullrich Shoes in Upper St. Clair. “And I was glad to send them there. I wasn’t even sure if we were coming back,” said Wells.
His services are certainly needed. “We are the only shoe repair shop in Washington County. The guy in Wheeling closed. I’m getting customers from down near Moundsville and between Wheeling and Columbus,” said Wells, who makes his own trek daily to work, 50 miles each direction from Monaca and back.
The shop reopened in Suite 538 in Krebs Plaza. At first, nobody knew he had reopened. “We just took care of people as they came by, which was kind of cool,” said Wells.
Before the pandemic, Wells and fellow cobbler Jack Cardello, who retired in 2018, repaired about 300 shoes weekly, working six to seven days a week. Now working alone, Wells is still doing a high volume of shoes weekly, working just three days a week. He expects the volume to increase as people discover an ‘open’ sign on the door. The shop is open from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Mondays and Tuesdays and Saturdays from 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.
And once again, the store is a neighborhood-style shop where patrons linger and chat. “We are kind of a different place,” admits Wells. “People sit down and talk. And we get a cross-section of people who do different jobs. There aren’t too many places you can go where that exists, and people exchange ideas. It gets interesting, and it changes every hour,” said Wells. His wife still offers a cup of coffee or some water to those waiting for repairs. And the regulars know there will be a plate of cookies on the table to make the wait a little sweeter.
It was difficult for him to get products for a while due to the pandemic’s slowdown. He buys products from New York, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Some companies closed, and some of those were more than 100 years old. “The industry is changing,” said Wells. “The older companies can’t offer products fast enough. And there are a lot of non-repairable tennis shoes now. People don’t wear dress shoes like they used to.” And many people are still working from home.
Despite that, he believes people will start to get dressed up again. Even the business casual and dressy casual looks that are popular now help out his business.
It used to be Saturdays were a big day at the repair shop. He’d take in 50 to 60 pairs. Now Mondays are really busy for him. He is busier when the seasons change, and people either have their shoes repaired when they bring them out for the season or before they put them away for the next season. Wells said a large percentage of his business is repairing heavy work boots and western boots in addition to women’s and men’s dress shoes and occasional belts and purses. An odd request comes in every so often, and he enjoys the challenge, like the woman who couldn’t find anyone to repair the zipper on her couch cushion.
“I had a girl pick up her boots, and she told me, ‘they look so good! How do you do that? ‘I don’t know how I do that,’ I told her. There’s a lot of different things I do to make them look like that, and that’s from being involved in the trade every day,” said Wells.
He’s been repairing shoes since the age of 12. While delivering newspapers in Beaver County, he’d duck into the shoe repair shop to warm up. “He fixed shoes from the men working in the mills and was always busy,” remembers Wells. The owner didn’t mind Wells warming up but told him he’d have to make himself useful and gave him a broom to sweep up. Eventually, he asked Wells if he thought he could pull a boot heel off, and his training began.
He worked in the auto industry for a time and then returned to repairing shoes while living in Tennessee. He came back to Pittsburgh when he purchased the business from Charles the Cobbler in 1986 and ran two stores, one at South Hills Village and the other in Donaldson’s Crossroads until 1995, when the store at the village closed.
He will tell you he never stops learning. “I spend a good amount of my time looking at what I do and how I can do it better, and the rest falls in line,” said Wells. During Covid, he connected with cobblers around the globe and watched other artisans and craftsmen on YouTube. “Today, you can go on YouTube and find things out. I don’t mind doing that. It makes it easier for the next day,” he said.
Most cobblers work alone, in part due to the high labor cost. “That’s why we don’t have an apprentice. You factor in the cost of rent and labor; it’s tough,” said Wells. An article from the online site “Stichdown” from Jan. 25, 2022, by Ben Robinson articulates the decline in cobbler’s shops across the nation: from 120,000 in 1928 to around 3,000 today, the majority run by those quickly approaching retirement, without apprentices. The article also indicates there are “younger cobblers who do excellent work and also excel at social media to raise awareness” as a bright spot in the decline. Wells believes it’s necessary to start people earlier in the field because much is involved in learning the processes.
So when does he plan to retire? “When the good Lord takes me,” said Wells. In the meantime, there are plenty of shoes to repair.