It strikes fear into the hearts of most business owners, but the recession does not scare Nancy MacMullen, the Island cobbler.
A look around her Oak Bluffs workshop will tell you why: always cluttered, it is overrun these days with queued shoes.
Ms. MacMullen, 56, is operating a two-week waiting list before she even gets a look at your footwear. Same goes for jackets, luggage sets, golf bags, deck chairs and die cups.
“People are fixing things rather than buying new stuff,” she said, perusing the frayed zigzag stitching on a child’s Ugg boot. “Yeah, business is going well.”
Ms. MacMullen provides a broad rage of services at The Cobbler Shop — its motto: saving your soles one shoe at a time — which are very tricky even for the most dedicated penny-pincher to accomplish with do-it-yourself skills.
“You can’t repair shoes yourself unless you use duct tape,” she said. “And something like a zipper, or a new slide, people just don’t have that lying around. I’ve got all the tools. I have the cement and the thing that fits inside the shoe and clamps it down.”
Mannequins are dotted around the workshop, next to Singer sewing machines, laces, chisels and thread spools. On one workbench is a pair of glossy black patent leather boots which Ms. MacMullen is trying with little success to de-shine. She works with Landis industrial lock and chain stitching machines and uses a curved stitch for parts, since she can no longer get someone to come and repair the old-fashioned equipment.
“They want me to take off the head and send it down to New York. Yeah, right,” she said.
As long as people have shoes on their feet (something this reporter’s father, who grew up during the London Blitz, regularly tells him wasn’t always so), Ms. MacMullen will have a viable business.
But in her experience the Vineyard is a particularly target-rich environment for several more reasons.
“Cobblestones and bricks are my friend,” she said. “New Yorkers aren’t walking on Edgartown streets, getting the leathers all scraped. In New York city they have these places that say, ‘Instant shoe repair.’ They just take off the stiletto and pop a new one in,” she said. “Plus, you can’t go to Wal-mart here and buy something new. And then, of course, people have their favorites.”
Over by one of the four stitching machines she picks up a worn-out leather boat shoe with several patches on the sole.
“This shoe is perfectly good, it just needs to be restitched. They have been in four times. People wear their shoes to death, they’re flopping off,” she said.
Then of course, they don’t make shoes like they used to.
“They’re cutting costs with the materials. More lightweight manufacturing,” Ms. MacMullen said. “I think these designers make shoes for carpeted offices in office buildings.”
But she admits that business hasn’t always been this good.
When Ms. MacMullen took over the shop in 1981 and later moved the business from downtown Oak Bluffs to its present workshop, she was hurt by a decline in the use of leather shoes.
“It used to be slow months in the winter,” she said, which is why she decided to expand her business to include clothing and other repair work.
Now she says there are reliable cycles to her business, cycles that mirror somewhat the rhythms of a resort Island in New England.
“It gets really busy in the fall, with people pulling out their shoes after summer. Christmas is hectic, then in January people get their suitcases ready,” she said.
Ms. MacMullen closed last week for a trip to Boston, and the workload waiting for her on her return was formidable.
“It’s hard for me to catch up,” she said, noting that she hasn’t even gotten through all the messages on her machine.
Then she added with a smile: “People have to be patient.”