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The Case of the Vanishing Cobbler

Cobbler, cobbler, mend my shoe,

Yes, good master, that I'll do.

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Stitch it up and stitch it down,

And then I'll give you half a crown.

Nursery rhyme

IN the window of our suburban shoe repair shop, a faded advertising poster shows a cobbler sitting at his bench, pounding a new heel onto a shoe. With his graying hair, twinkling eyes, and genial smile, he looks like a character straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting, or perhaps a nursery rhyme. A face from the past, quaintly preserved.

Inside the shop, a real-life cobbler updates the image as he stands by a huge machine, repairing a high-heeled shoe. When a customer enters, he smiles, puts down the shoe, and offers a friendly greeting as he steps behind the counter.

The long-time customer returns the greeting and then asks a simple question: "How's everything with you?" Suddenly the cobbler's smile fades. He sighs and says slowly, "I have to decide what I am going to do."

His rent, he explains, is up - way up - and business is down because of the recession. Although he works eight hours a day, six days a week, he barely clears expenses, earning what he describes as "just enough to pay the gas to drive to work."

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A year ago he paid $450 a month for a small storefront in the next block. When the landlord raised the rent to $1,300, the cobbler was forced to move. Even his current location costs almost $950 a month. And so, very reluctantly, he finds himself thinking about retiring and going home for good.

This is not the way it was supposed to happen after a lifetime of hard work and frugal living. For 13 years he has soled and heeled and polished new life into worn and scuffed shoes. Shoes have, in fact, defined his entire career, first in his native Italy, then here. He is very good at what he does. But he has no pension - it disappeared when the shoe factory where he worked shut down - and no health insurance.

If he does retire, the closing of his shop will be duly noted in our weekly suburban paper. His faithful customers will eventually find another cobbler, though it is hard to imagine finding anyone better. Another small business will move into his space, and suburban life will go on.

But something will have been lost beyond a single shop and a single craftsman. The event will also mark the end of one man's entrepreneurial spirit, combining once-high hopes and years of hard work. And in an increasingly impersonal world, who can underestimate the value of service with a personal touch?

Obviously no threatened demise of a tiny business can compare to the closing of huge department stores. Just last month Alexander's in New York filed for bankruptcy, closing 11 stores. A few days later, Macy's announced that it will close eight stores, affecting an estimated 1,850 employees and legions of customers. These displacements deserve the front-page headlines they receive.

But smaller endings - even threatened ones - deserve notice and tribute too. If cobblers become part of a vanishing breed of artisans and tradesmen, will future generations know them only through sing-song verses in a nursery rhyme?

It is too early to tell. Still, who among the workers of the high-tech future will apprentice for these solitary low-tech occupations? Who will be willing to put in the long hours such labor-intensive businesses require? As an example, consider our local tailor, who labors at his sewing machine more than 60 hours a week.

The fashion in suburbia is to do over Main Street so it looks like the past. Lots of brick facing and gold-lettered signs and stores with "village" in their name. This makes a chic stage set, perfect for butchers, bakers, candlestick makers - and cobblers. If only they could afford it!

For now, our local cobbler is still safely in place. But if he has to leave, will the fragrance of leather continue to fill the shop, whoever the next tenant is? It is a nice poetical idea, but no substitute for a real live shoemaker, sticking to his last.

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