Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Shoe Guru

Everyone loves a bargain, but cheaper prices and lesser quality could mean the end of an art form.

Sheila here, and I'm talking about shoe repair shops. You might ask, art form? In the case of Bert Hanlin, I say yes. The guy is artist. He opened up Hanlin Shoe Repair in Florence more than 30 years ago. I don't remember anymore how I found the place, or how long I've been going there, but Bert has repaired a ton of shoes for me and a few handbags too.

Bert's named for his dad, who has the first location of Hanlin Shoe Repair in West Virginia. Bert and his brothers learned the craft from their dad, growing up in Huntington. He's a quiet guy, who mostly can be found in the back of his store on U.S. 42, repairing tears, replacing heels and soles, and buffing shoes to a high shine. I love smelling the mix of leather and cleaners when I walk in the door.

My friend Jan is the ultimate shoe addict. She will describe a new pair of shoes as if they are made of the finest gold, or perhaps as if they are her new children. She goes into great detail about her new treasures, and her eyes light up like a child's on Christmas morning. Jan recently told me this story about Bert Hanlin.

"My favorite Stuart Weitzman shoes are maroon patent leather platform pumps. Yes, they are to die for! I tore up the leather on the heel and took it to Hanlin's on my way into work. I wanted to wear them that day, but knew I needed to just drop them off to get them fixed, so I wore another pair. When I showed it to him, he said he wasn't sure what he could do with maroon patent leather. He took them to the back, and I swear it wasn't 2 minutes, he came back out with my shoe looking brand new. I was shocked! I asked what I owed him and he said, 'Just have a nice day.' WOW - who does that anymore?! What a way start to my morning - plus, I got to wear them to work that day. I have taken my shoes and handbags there for years, and I am never disappointed with his work. I've even bought shoes that I wasn't all that wild about, knowing that I can take them to him and he will remove straps and make them look like a completely different shoe. I don't know where I would go if he wasn't around anymore."

I was thinking the same thing when I was in Bert's place recently, and I asked him if he's training the next generation to take over Hanlin's. He's not. Bert says he has about 10 years left in him before he retires, and his brother Dennis may take over, but he may just fade into the sunset, a lot like the shoe repair business. Bert told me customers travel hours to his store because small shoe repair businesses are closing right and left. I believe it's not just because shoe repair spots are closing left and right, it's also because of the price and the customer service. At a time when it seems like everything costs more, but you can get your shoes repaired or re-soled and shined up for just a few bucks. It makes so much more sense to me than paying for a new pair. Don't forget your claim ticket if you go. It's the only way Bert can find your shoes! And, ala The Soup Nazi, he might grumble at you if you forget. But like my girlfriend Jan said, Bert's just as likely to make your day, not just with a service we don't see so much anymore, but with a kindness we could stand to see a little more too.

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