Craft Culture: Turning family tradition into modern day practice at George’s Shoe Repair

011717_Growler_Georges_041

George’s Shoe Repair // Photo by Tj Turner

Looking at the pair of shoes, Luke George didn’t just see worn down heels, scrunched up leather, or years of grime built up on the once-white surfaces.  The cobbler knew these were more than just a pair of old dress shoes—they once belonged to his customer’s grandfather. They had history. A legacy. Years in the repair business taught Luke to see possibility where others saw damage. As the customer handed over the shoes to him, the cobbler could already see the pair’s second life taking shape.

“They needed some love,” says Luke, who worked for hours to bring the once-pristine pair back to life. “We started off by stripping them and getting the finish down to raw leather.”

Then Luke took off the heels, the soles, and the welts of each shoe in a workshop so narrow two people can barely pass by one another. With the old shoes finally down to the bare bones, he began to rebuild them.

“You have things you hold onto. I’ve got something of my grandpa’s I like. He wanted something from his grandpa, too, so I made it happen for him,” Luke says, who restored the monk strap dress shoes back to their former glory. “The reaction on his face was priceless. He was so excited to have his grandpa’s shoes back in the mix.”

For more than a century, members of the George family have worked alongside each other in the shoe repair business, first in Lebanon and then eventually in Minnesota. The family built its reputation on bringing shoes back from the brink of ruin and fixing what the competition couldn’t, or wouldn’t. While the Old World trade may conjure up images of a dying craft long past its prime, that’s not the case for Luke and his sister, Melissa, who joined their father, Ron, nearly 15 years ago at the family’s shop in Arden Hills, Minnesota. The proof is in the customers who flock to the store each month, bringing hundreds of pairs of shoes with them.

It’s all in the family

011717_Growler_Georges_089

The family behind George’s Shoe Repair are (left to right) Melissa, Ron, and Luke George // Photo by Tj Turner

There’s only one thing you can smell when you walk into George’s Shoes & Repair: leather. In the back room it’s heaped in rolls atop a shelf. Out in the front room it’s the go-to choice for shoe brands stocked in the store like ECCO, UGG, Birkenstock, and Minnetonka Moccasin. Everywhere you look there is a tool that transforms the look of the material—there are adhesives to glue it, machines to shine it, and big rotating wheels that grind leather soles down to the right size.

The family traces its roots in shoe repair all the way back to a mountain town in northern Lebanon, where Ron’s grandfather, Joseph, opened a custom boot making shop in 1905. Joseph continued his trade after immigrating to McIntosh, South Dakota, first working for the cobbler in town and eventually buying the store when the previous owner retired. At 18 years old, Ron’s dad, Said, left Lebanon and reunited with his parents in South Dakota. Joseph taught his son how to repair boots, and after a few years gave him $100 in equipment to launch his own store. Said opened a repair shop on St. Paul’s West Side, and brought his kids to work with him when they were old enough. Growing up, Ron’s seven siblings took turns working after school and on the weekends; Ron remembers spending every Saturday in the store shining shoes and waiting on customers.

011717_Growler_Georges_007

Ron George // Photo by Tj Turner

“The best part was lunch. We had an electric plate and an old metal coffee can we’d fill it up with water,” says Ron, who took over the family business with his brother in 1975. “Then we would go to the grocery store, get old-fashioned hot dogs, buy a can of Hormel chili and make chili dogs.”

As he grew up, Ron found work outside of the family shop at a variety of odd jobs—pizza truck driver, school bus driver, ambulance driver, and plant foreman, which brought him east to Syracuse, New York—but something about those Saturdays spent in his father’s shoe repair shop as a kid was calling him back. So, in 1975 he moved back to Minnesota and joined the family repair business.

011717_Growler_Georges_024

Melissa George // Photo by Tj Turner

Like their father, Luke and Melissa took a roundabout path back to the family trade. After working at the repair shop part-time through high school and college, Luke got a job painting houses and worked for UPS, while Melissa got hired at a marketing agency. The siblings continued helping out at the repair shop on Saturdays and in their spare time. Before long, Melissa realized the agency wasn’t the right environment for her.

“I called him crying from my cubicle wanting to quit,” says Melissa, who started working with her father full time in 2003. “It was awful. I wasn’t meant for an office.”

011717_Growler_Georges_037

Luke George // Photo by Tj Turner

Instead, she took a shine to the ever-changing challenges of repairing shoes. Each day felt different, and the hours were flexible. Like each generation that came before them, the siblings learned the ins and outs of the business from their father.

“We do what others don’t,” says Luke, who specializes in repairing soles and heels on women’s shoes, and works in sales. “We’ve got four generations to set us right. We’ve been doing it this long and we want to keep it going. We take pride in doing amazing work.”

Next page: The impossible fix

Pages: 1 2

 
Growler Subscriptions Banner