The century-old Cobbler Shop is an Island institution, caring for Vineyarders’ shoes and purses, their horse tack, their belts and dice cups, luggage sets, golf bags, and deck chairs, as well as addressing the customized orthopedic needs of the physically challenged.
Founded on Circuit Avenue in 1905 by George Fry, the Cobbler Shop has changed ownership and location over the decades, eventually finding its way to its present spot in the basement of owner Nancy MacMullen’s home in the Sea Glen section of Oak Bluffs. Nancy began as an apprentice in the business in the 1970s when the shop was owned by Rom Maher; upon his retirement in 1982, she bought the Cobbler Shop and embarked on the business of “saving soles one shoe at a time.”
In an era that has seen two-thirds of America’s shoe-repair shops go belly-up in the past quarter-century, the Cobbler Shop has not only survived, it has thrived. If you want anything repaired, be prepared to wait well over two weeks. Business is that good.
Why has she thrived at a time when so many similar enterprises have failed?
“I love a challenge,” Nancy said simply, in a recent interview with The Local. “I love taking on projects that others would reject.”
The challenges have been many, both professional and personal.
When Nancy took ownership of the shop in the Eighties, the shoe-repair industry was on the cusp of a sea change that would drive many cobblers out of business. For centuries, cobbling had been largely about replacing leather heels and soles on leather shoes. Suddenly, molded plastic and rubber shoes like Keen came on the market. Cobblers floundered.
Not Nancy; she adapted. “I have a reputation of taking on difficult projects, projects other cobblers would have turned down,” she said. “People seem to think I can fix anything. I have a following, I guess you’d call it. People save their shoes all winter to bring with them when they come down in the summer.”
Strike up a conversation with just about any Islander, and they have a Cobbler Shop story.
Over coffee at the Y Cafe, John Samways tells of having his shoe wardrobe revamped when he retired from office work as a newspaper executive. A snappy dresser, it is apparent John is one of those guys who believes in investing in quality footwear. He claims some of the shoes in his closet are decades old, but he explained, “they still shine up nice.” But the leather soles and heels — an old-fashioned cobbler’s dream — needed what Nancy calls Vineyard-specific help: “Here you’re walking on gravel, you’re walking on concrete, you’re not walking from office to office on carpet. You need rubber soles.” So Nancy installed rubber soles on John’s shoe wardrobe.
In a conversation at the seawall beside Inkwell Beach, Dr. Fran Gaskin spoke of her long patronage of the Cobbler Shop, and of a job that has for years required Nancy’s best skills: a pair of sandals passed down through generations. “Beautiful sandals with classic American coins woven together with strips of leather. Basically Nancy has been transferring these beautiful tops to new soles for years. Now my granddaughter wears them.”
Asked if Islanders have a certain style, Nancy replied: “Yeah, it’s ‘anything goes’ — from Birkenstocks to high-priced Ferragamos. And then there are the boat shoes and work boots. We repair them all.”
The beauty of the the newly repaired shoes queued for pickup is exceeded only by the loveliness of the massive old machines lining the workroom, huge ancient beasts, their original shiny green enamel muted now to a fine patina by decades of use. “Some of the machines came with the shop and are older than I am,” Nancy explained. “Being on an Island, we have learned to fix our machines ourselves, and I have a couple of duplicates in case one breaks down; then we can use the other until it gets fixed.” A beautiful old Singer sewing machine, still powered with a foot pedal, is used to repair sails.
When another challenge came on the horizon in recent years — a cancer diagnoses — shoes had to be sent off-Island for a while. Then help showed up in the form of Connecticut cobbler Darry Spain.
For Darry it was a dream come true. A summer visitor and avid fisherman for years, Darry and his wife planned on retiring to the Vineyard at some far-off date. But that date was moved up when Nancy needed help. Today Nancy is on the mend, and Darry stays on. There continues to be enough work to keep both cobblers busy.
They work well together: “Darry sometimes shakes his head about some of more challenging repairs I take in. And while I am training Darry in the art of fixing the impossible, he is trying to train me in the art of saying no.”