The Sharp End: Cobblers to the gentry

In a day's shift at a Chelsea shoe-repair shop, Dave Waller discovers his sole.

by Dave Waller
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The story is that shoe repair is a goldmine in a recession. Of course, that may be just a load of old cobblers. MT has sent me to Timpsons on London's Kings Road to see whether the high street's most traditional trade is booming now that the rest of the economy has gone heels-up.

I'm greeted by Andy Konis, Timpsons' high-octane branch manager, who says he's seen a lot of change in his 26-year career. When he started out at 16, his boss was a proper old-school snobber ('snobbing': to hold a batch of nails in your mouth while hammering one into the sole). Now it's all staple-guns and speed, he says. 'The old image of the smelly place and the scruffy old bloke with a fag hanging out of his mouth has gone.'

Andy may exude a professional air, but his arms are covered in tattoos: Zeus sitting above Atlas, who's surrounded by emblems of the seven deadly sins. But sloth isn't his Achilles' heel. He buzzes about among piles of shoes, eyes wide from the rush he gets from chucking himself into tasks and doing them well.

He's done a Herculean job on the figures too. Since he took over this branch six months ago, he has broken all the store's records, taking nearly £10k in his best week. Even his worst month beat the previous team's best. 'People are coming back,' he explains. The store is branching out into passport photos and jewellery, as well as the traditional shoes, keys and watches.

I've seldom seen anyone so at ease with customers, especially in one of the stuffier areas of London. He's all first names. 'Five pounds, was it?' asks one well-to-do woman. 'Five hundred,' he replies, deadpan. One bloke plonks his shoes on the counter, praises Andy for his last job and asks him what he can do. Andy says moulded soles are a problem. 'I've got two problems,' says his customer. 'One's my brain, the other's my lady partner.'

Of all the places Andy has worked, the Kings Road has the best sense of community. The gentry are proud to support their local shoe-mender. 'The grapevine here is like Eastenders,' he says.

Out the back, shoes lie scattered around an army of machines built of cranks, needles, wheels and wrenches, like the evidence of a gruesome killing spree. While Andy does customer service, his young protege Keith is back here stripping off old soles, sticking new ones on, stitching them and rebuilding heels. 'Just get your head down and plough through it,' says Keith.

Andy tells me how his first boss never actually spoke to him; he had him repeating the same task for a year, running shoe after shoe through the machine polisher - a sadistic taskmaster, like Mr Miyagi, the enigmatic sensei (master) in the Karate Kid films.

And like every impetuous kung-fu apprentice, Andy eventually lost his rag, moaning that he should be learning how to finish shoes. 'Then finish a shoe,' comes the response. His boss hands him one, whereupon Andy takes it deftly through every step of the process, with no idea how he's doing it. 'Without all that practice, you'd never have grasped it,' says his boss.

I half expect Andy to have me out the back with his car yelling 'wax on, wax off'. Instead, I get to have a bash at a stiletto heel. I pull out the nail, pull off the end bit, hammer a new one in and send it round the machine to smooth it off. Instead of a rounded finish, I master what Andy calls 'the 50p piece'. Andy still does everything by hand, including trimming a rubber sole. He hands me the knife to try. It doesn't budge. He takes it and peels the rubber back like a potato skin. He's strong and dextrous, but there's a drawback: he has lost all sensation in his leathery hands.

The machines are whirring and the place reeks of glue. There is a constant flood of people, dropping off or picking up. A young lawyer type comes in, saying he needs his size 13 shoes patched up just well enough to last a funeral. Andy reluctantly agrees, but patch-up jobs clearly offend his craftsman instincts. He can't charge for it. The customer, Joe, goes off to buy us all a coffee.

Another customer wants the front of his shoe glued; one woman's heel is wobbling; another asks whether they do watch batteries; and a student needs a passport photo for the nearby Spanish consulate. It's all happening ...

Joe is back with the coffees. The shoes are for his grandad's funeral, and he's carrying the coffin. Andy's in his element, offering his sympathies, then describing services in his native Greece, where kids end up chucking stones at the corpse's head.

The day flies by to the rhythm of the ringing till. Andy may have shown me the secret to enjoying work - you gotta have sole.

In today's bulletin:

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UK firms: Raise VAT to cut deficit, not NICs
RBS hobbled by its largest shareholder?
The Sharp End: Cobblers to the gentry
MT Expert's Ten Top Tips: Act your way to the top

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