“Most people my age don’t want to do this. They don’t want to get dirty. They don’t want to work with their hands. Some of them don’t want to work 15 hours a day. They’d rather go to college, work a desk job.”
Vincent D’Italia, 35, who works alongside his father Giovanni, reflected on the nearly extinct art of shoemaking and shoe repair in the family-owned shop his grandfather opened in Hoboken 50 years ago.
The D’Italias come from a long line of cobblers who originally descended from Saracena, Italy.
Giovanni’s great grandfather was the first cobbler in the D’Italia family; son Vincent is the fifth man in the clan to carry on the tradition.
Giovanni’s father, also named Vincent, emigrated from Italy to Cuba in 1957 and came to Hoboken in 1960. He sent for son Giovanni, who had been born in Cuba and was 15 at the time, shortly thereafter.
The two quickly found a home in Hoboken’s large Italian immigrant community and opened Giovanni D’Italia at the corner of 7th and Garden streets, where the shop remains to this day.
Like chimney sweeps and locksmiths and dressmakers, cobblers have become almost as rare as daily milk delivery on the doorstep.
D’Italia estimates there were about 100 shoe repair shops at that time – and only one dry cleaner, a ratio that has reversed in the ensuing years.
As shoes have become less expensive, D’Italia said, “It’s cheaper just to buy new shoes. Why have old ones repaired?”
A lost art
As time passed, shoe repair shops in Hoboken fell by the wayside and went the way of the 5-cent bubblegum and soda fountains. Like chimney sweeps and locksmiths and dressmakers, cobblers have become almost as rare as daily milk delivery on the doorstep.
But D’Italia has found a loyal following among longtime Hobokenites, who grew up taking their well-worn heels to his father, and tony newcomers who ask him to fix their broken Manolo Blahniks and Christian Louboutins.
Any time spent in the shop quickly reveals the cross section of his customers.
One man said he has been “bringing my shoes here for 40 years.”
The comment seemed an exaggeration. But after the man left, D’Italia commented that the man’s parents used to bring the family shoes to the store when the man was still a boy.
“Now, kids wear the sneakers. Then, you didn’t do that. You had to wear loafers. Every fall, before the school year, the parents would bring the kids shoes to have them fixed up and ready for school. His parents used to bring him in here when he was a kid. And now, he still comes.”
Later, Vincent searched for a pair of Ugg boots that had been repaired for a woman who said she moved to Hoboken last year. The boot repair, she said, was her first visit to Giovanni D’Italia.
‘It’s a trade’
Women, the elder D’Italia said, are the majority of his customers – especially women who have a penchant for high heels.
He said he has seen – and repaired – it all: worn down heels, heels that have been broken in half, heels that have had their leather or suede scuffed away. One of the more challenging repairs he gets are shoes with broken shanks, where the sole or spine of the shoe actually breaks in half.
“Women. That’s our main business. You have to satisfy the women. Forget about the men. Ninety percent of this business is women. As long as you do it perfectly the way they like it – that’s it. That’s why I’m still here.”
One woman on Monday brought in a pair of men’s leather shoes that, she explained to Vincent in Spanish, were her husband’s favorite pair. The top pieces of leather had become unstitched from the leather on the sides of the shoes.
The job, he explained later, will be more challenging than it looks.
“Customers think you can just sew the two pieces of leather together. You can’t do that because the leather won’t line up right and it will [buckle],” he said. “I had to explain to her, I’m going to have to add a piece of leather [in the gap where the two pieces of leather have separated]. They’re also going to need new heels. The cost of the repair is probably going to cost more than the shoes are worth, but they’re her husband’s favorite pair.”
Giovanni D’Italia, who now has a second shoe repair shop in the Newport section of Jersey City, admits he is preparing his son to take over the business one day. (He has two other children who, he said, do not work in the family business.)
Polishing up a pair of heels, a simple task for a master cobbler, Giovanni said later, “I take pride in the easy things. This is easy. This isn’t hard. Shoe repair is a trade. You either do it right, or you don’t do it.”
E-mail E. Assata Wright at email@example.com.