Sole saver: Bill Wells stays busy as a cobbler

MCMURRAY, Pa. (AP) — Bill Wells has spent the past 33 years saving soles.

Wells is a cobbler, and the 81-year-old works seven days a week to repair shoes at his shop, Charles the Cobbler, in Krebs Professional Center in Peters Township.

He is, as far as he knows, the only cobbler left in Washington County, and the craftsman has his hands full. He repairs more than 300 pairs of shoes a week - changing heels, stretching shoes and replacing soles on everything from Jimmy Choos, Christian Louboutins and Cole Haans, to Birkenstocks, Timberlands and Adidas tennis shoes.

He also fixes purses, leather coats, luggage and belts.

"This industry is pretty much going away. There's nobody left to do this. We're pretty much down to the point where there's nobody left," said Wells.

The number of cobblers has dropped from about 100,000 during the Great Depression to about 5,000 today, according to Jim McFarland, who serves on the board of Shoe Service Institute of America, a trade group that aims to educate consumers about the economic and environmental benefits of purchasing and repairing quality footwear.

"Most of the businesses are second, third and fourth generation. My shop is 101. My grandfather started it in 1918," said McFarland. "The shops that are left, the older guys are retiring and closing their doors."

Wells bought his shop in 1986 - it was located at South Hills Village then - from Charles Cancilla, the original owner, who had suffered a stroke.

He relocated to Donaldson's Crossroads in the 1990s and moved to the Krebs location in 2001.

While Wells didn't buy the repair shop until he was in his late 40s, he is no stranger to mending shoes.

He learned the business when he was an 11-year-old delivering newspapers in Monaca.

The last stop on his paper route was a shoe repair store, and Wells lingered in the shop to warm up on cold days.

"You couldn't just hang out there and do nothing, you had to do something, like sweep the floor," said Wells. "So I started learning the trade and helping at the shop."

Starting in his 20s, Wells worked in the automotive industry where, among other jobs, he owned and operated an automotive repair shop and served as director of maintenance for Hertz.

Wells and his wife, Donna, who have been married for 52 years, drive 100 miles each day, from their home in Monaca to the shop and back. Donna tends the front of the shop, while Wells works in the back, which is filled with stitching machines, buffing wheels, glue, polishes, knives and nails.

At one time, Wells employed as many as 10 people, but now he handles the workload by himself.

"It's very costly to run any kind of small business anymore, and there aren't a lot of people who want to do this work. It's tough work," said Wells.

But, it's satisfying.

"It was kind of a hobby for me when I started. I like it," Wells said. "You take something that's a piece of crap and you turn it into something."

Wells will repair any shoe that he deems worth fixing, but he noted that shoe buyers today often purchase cheap import dress shoes and then discard them.

The materials used to make shoes are often cheap, and even some of the leather isn't high quality anymore, he said.

"How you make a shoe hasn't changed much. The materials have, and a lot of it is junk," said Wells. "If you bring in a shoe and we think we can put it back together, we do. If we get it apart and it's kind of nasty and not worth repairing, we'll tell you."

Customers travel from as far away as Wheeling, W.Va., Ohio, Greene County and Pittsburgh for shoe repair. While Wells has spent most of his career repairing dress shoes, he increasingly is working on work boots as customers in the oil and gas industry discover his shop.

But customers also visit Charles the Cobbler for the friendly service.

"A lot of our customers are like family," said Donna. "We've seen them get married and have children. We've been there through major events in their lives."

Jeff Sherman of Peters Township stops in daily to play the lottery and chat with the couple.

"I brought a pair of shoes in about four of five years ago, and I've been coming in every day since to play the lottery and talk to Donna and Bill," said Sherman. "It's just a nice little quaint shop. There aren't many repair shops left. I'll bring in goodies like cookies, and not too long ago I made a spaghetti pizza casserole for them for lunch. They're great people, and Bill has the personality where he needs to be around people."

Wells said he planned to retire a couple of years ago, but he's not ready.

"I don't know what I'd do if I retire," said Wells. "I won't do this forever, but I'm not ready to sit around. I kinda like doing this."

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Information from: Observer-Reporter, http://www.observer-reporter.com