Off North Road

Nancy Schwarz Macmullen
Nancy Schwarz Macmullen is our cobbler. Photo by Danielle Zerbonne

Cobbling, the lost art?

By Russell Hoxsie - September 6, 2007

"Cobble: to mend or patch shoes; cobbler: one who mends or patches shoes," so says "The New World Dictionary, Second Edition." As a kid I'd be sent off to the town's cobbler once in a while to take Dad's leather shoes for new soles. (Remember the famous campaign picture of Adlai Stevenson with the worn hole in the sole of his shoe?) Even we kids wore leather shoes in winter for school. I'd need new heels now and then when they'd worn down on the outside and put my stride off. New rubber heels gave you a sharp sense of authority and purpose as their sound rebounded from hard-wood floors of the classrooms. If you wanted a real thrill, you had the cobbler put on hard leather heels, which echoed all the way from homeroom to the science lab.

As the 1930s and 40s disappeared into World War II, times and fashions changed. Before we knew it, sneakers became year-round apparel and the old red and white Converse high-rise canvas sneaks gave way to the multitude of heavy-duty and plasticized sports shoes that are now everywhere. They became almost the universal working and casual shoe, often the work-a-day office shoe with jeans. Cobblers had almost reached the disappearing point almost but Oak Bluffs retained a cobbler in the person of George (Buster) Frye, a friendly outgoing man who always greeted you with a smile. I remember the yellow tear-off tickets he stuck in the empty shoes waiting repair in his shop's window. The other half he gave to the customer to claim back his repaired item. Maybe the number of shoes displayed made a statement about the shop's prosperity or gave notice to the readiness for pick-up if your own shoe was on display. However, fixing or replacing parts of the new style sneaker was nearly impossible and not certainly profitable. As Mrs. Grace Frye (Buster's widow still living in Oak Bluffs) says, "Everyone was buying 'throw-away shoes.'" The old shoe store disappeared from Main Street in Vineyard Haven and sports shoes were displayed everywhere.

However, fixing or replacing parts of the new style sports shoe seemed impossible so the cobblers' businesses declined. By the 1960s and 70s, I was in need of relief from a chronic irritation of my sciatic nerve. The orthopedist found my pelvis had tilted making the right leg appear shorter than the left. I was in need of a lift in the right shoe to even the balance. To my good fortune, I found Nancy Schwarz Macmullen in her old shop on Edgartown Road. She was adept at inserting wedges between the layers of the heel end of the sole to equalize the length of legs. To make the right shoe less clumsy, she put only a half of the 3/4 inch on the right and took away the other half 3/4 from the "longer" leg. The condition improved and my back no longer "went out." And, as time went on, I ignored the lift while it and my leather shoes wore out. The pain recurred and I found Nancy the cobbler again. Of course, I was an old customer, grown older, but she remained the pert, dark-haired woman looking much younger than she ought to have for the number of years that had passed since our last association. She now has two grown children, a daughter, Dawn, at Florida State University and a US Marine son, Duncan, about to return from his latest posting in Iraq within the next couple of weeks.

I called Nancy Schwarz Macmullen to see if she would talk with me. We passed a pleasant hour at her Edgartown Road emporium among the clutter of a very busy one-woman workshop. Flanked by a wall of huge heavy machinery, multiple tables, chairs, benches and piles of materials, every horizontal surface, it seems, obscured by its contents. In the distance, I could see multiple household pipes coursing vertically to the living quarters above. A large, rather relaxed black curly haired dog sniffed inquisitively and retired to a distant corner. I imagined he/she was accustomed to frequent visitors.

Nancy proceeded to outline the history of her cobbling on the Vineyard. She had arrived in the 1970s and took a job with a Mr. Maher, cobbler, with whom she worked for ten years. She had always sewed so it seemed natural to pitch right in with patching and repairs. She also worked at Wood Chips, an arts and crafts shop started by Millie and Ralph Briggs, later owned and run by Edie and Arnold Brown. The cobbler shop moved often, usually with the same equipment but different owners and workers: Chet Cummens, Mr. Marchant, George (Buster) Frye and others. My impression was that times were tough for cobblers and they made frequent changes in employment over the years. Nancy moved once to Vineyard Haven but later back to Oak Bluffs. She has hung on and now thinks her future is more secure. "People are more conscious of environmental conditions, about using something (like shoes) until they're worn out, not just thrown away." She keeps the work to the quality she would wear for herself. She shows me a worn brown leather loafer with the tip of its sole peeling away. She fingers it as if testing just how she will put this to rights. A gang of other shoes wait around the establishment and I have a couple at home I have been wondering what to do with. She deals not only in shoes but brief cases, suitcases, leather jackets and custom belts, to mention a few. Best of all, she has mastered the skills for repairing the new style sports shoe and accepts assignments from orthopedic surgeons who need equalizing lifts or other orthotics for patients with a variety of foot conditions.

My wife dropped in the other day to see if Nancy could stretch some straps on a new sandal that were too tight across the bulge of an arthritic foot. That would be child's play, she would say, but she also noticed that the cloth shoulder bag Mary Ann had dropped on the table was rapidly losing its heavy straps which were frayed and stretched out. "I could fix those," she said and she did. She also called a few days later with a good fix on the sandal straps.

While the conditions for the single operator cobbler have changed and gone through difficult times, I would say that Nancy Macmullen has landed on rock-solid shores and will continue to provide vital and accessible service for years to come. I must find that other pair of shoes to fix and have my new Nikes wedged up to height. Thanks, Nancy.