The basement smells of shoe polish and rubber cement. Machines, some dating to the Jazz Age, glint in the sunlight streaming through the windows. Every shelf seems to have at least one pair of shoe soles on it and pair of finished work boots sits behind the counter.
The Cobbler Shop is back in business. Owner Nancy MacMullen officially reopened last Tuesday after a long hiatus, and her to-do list was full right away.
“I still had work left that people wouldn’t pick up,” Ms. MacMullen said in a recent interview. “They said ‘No, I’ll just leave it until you’re back.’”
Ms. MacMullen, who has owned the shop since 1981, was diagnosed with breast cancer two years ago.
“When I went through treatment, I thought I could still work,” she said. “And it didn’t work, and so I just shut down very abruptly.”
She coordinated with a cobbler in Falmouth to send clients off-Island for shoe repairs, and continued with her medical treatments. Ms. MacMullen is now in good health once more, and felt ready to hang the Open sign outside her home in Oak Bluffs, where the basement doubles as the cobbler workshop.
“I know it’s a needed service on the Island,” she said. “It’s the only one. It’s been the only one for so long.”
The Cobbler Shop was founded by George Frye in 1920. At the time it was located on Circuit avenue and the location has changed a few times in the past 94 years. But the underlying mission remains the same.
“Usually, if you make people’s feet happy you make the rest of them happy,” Ms. MacMullen said. And she felt it was important for her own well-being to reopen the shop.
“You become friends with your customers,” she said. “It’s been such a big part of my life for like 30 years or so now. It was hard for me to let go of that.”
Ms. MacMullen started working at the Cobbler Shop in the 1970s for Rom Maher as a patcher-stitcher.
“It was a lot of putting in zippers and patching up shoes,” she said. She was also working part-time at Woodchips on State Road, making canvas bags. But she stayed on at the cobbler, learning as she went, and eventually taking over the business.
When Ms. MacMullen first started cobbling, men’s dress shoes and women’s high heels were the most common fixes. These days she does more orthopedic work and handles many Vineyard-specific jobs, including adding protective soles.
“Here, you’re walking on gravel, you’re walking on concrete, you’re not shuffling from one office to another on carpet. It wears your shoes right out,” she said.
In many cases, “the shoes themselves have changed from leather and rubber to molded soles,” Ms. MacMullen said. “So we’ve had to adapt, the whole industry has had to adapt. It’s not just this shop.”
Some things need little adaptation, though, including the machinery. Ms. MacMullen’s most recent purchase was a sewing machine specific to harness, bridle and saddle work (cobbling is more than just shoes), but other machines have been around since the shop’s early days. A Singer treadle machine from the 1920s is still in the rotation.
“With the little arm, you can get a shoe on there, and [then] the foot spins in any direction so you can stitch in any direction,” Ms. MacMullen said.
There’s also a sailmaker, a motorized sewing machine and a large stitching machine for boat shoe repairs, among other devices. A shoe shine station contains dozens of jars of polish, and another stand holds thread of every color and thickness.
“We moved a lot of equipment around, so it’s still an ‘Oh we’re not ready, we’re not ready’ moment. I want everything to be just right.”
Ms. MacMullen hired Darry Spain, a cobbler from Connecticut, to help with the workflow. Her medications affect her joints so she cannot do as much detail work. Mr. Spain and his wife had often considered moving to the Vineyard, and on learning of Ms. MacMullen’s cancer offered to help out. Ms. MacMullen and Mr. Spain are also joined in the shop by Cinder, a friendly three-year-old boxer mix.
“My customers have really stuck with me, I have to say that, through children, moves, family sickness,” Ms. MacMullen said. She called a longtime client last week to tell her the Cobbler Shop was open.
“I said, we just started working on your shoes. You might want to come in and look at them,” Ms. MacMullen said.
“And she said ‘Oh wow, it’s like Christmas all over again.’”