Cobbling together a life’s passion

Repair business closes, bringing the end of an era.

The Cobbler Shop in Oak Bluffs was tucked into the basement of a house on Sea Glen Road. — Stacey Rupolo

The Cobbler Shop in Oak Bluffs, a business that dates back 113 years, has closed its doors, and some of the shop’s faithful clients feel as if the Island community is not only losing someone who can fix soles, but a bit of its soul.

The shop closed for good on Saturday. More than a month ago, Nancy MacMullen, the longtime owner of the shop, announced the closing on the Cobbler Shop’s Facebook page.

“It’s very sad, very sad,” MacMullen told The Times in an interview Monday. MacMullen has had to distance herself from the shop recently because of her health. “So it wasn’t a jolt,” she said, when the shop closed for good.

It was for some of her longtime customers. “I’m sad to hear it,” Barbara Phillips of Edgartown said. She was one of more than a dozen people who posted on the Facebook page about the Cobbler Shop closing. “She’s done a lot of great work for us.”

She used the Cobbler Shop to fix leather purses, belts, and boots. “She was just wonderful, and fairly priced,” Phillips said. “She was always so pleasant and willing.”

And, apparently, there was no challenge too great. Like the time Phillips’ son, Andrew, wore away a hole in the palm of his favorite hockey glove. “They were his lucky gloves, they were all ripped,” Phillips said. “She laughed when I brought them in.”

MacMullen remembered the gloves, which she patched up for more hockey games.

She also remembered the time a celebrity, whom she did not name, brought a lamp in her shop to be fixed. It wasn’t really her thing, but she did it anyway.

MacMullen got her fix-anything attitude from her father, she said. “My dad was a real fix-it guy,” MacMullen said. “I helped him out when I was a kid. I liked going into his shop, working with him.”

When he retired, her parents moved to the Vineyard and helped her out — dad in the shop and her mom doing the bookkeeping.

MacMullen worked in her Oak Bluffs location for 32 years. Prior to that, the shop was on busy Circuit Avenue, where it was opened in 1905 by George Fry. MacMullen started at the shop in the 1970s, and took over ownership from Rom Maher in 1982, she told The Local in an interview in 2016.

After the birth of her first son in 1985, she moved the Cobbler Shop to the basement of her Sea Glen Road home in 1986. It worked out great for her family. She was close by, and the upstairs ended up becoming a hangout for her children’s friends.

MacMullen has since inherited her parents’ home in Vineyard Haven, but is holding onto the Sea Glen Road property for her grown children.

“It helped me pay for my house,” MacMullen said of the shop. “It really was a lifesaver for me. It worked so well for so many years. I provided a valuable service for people. I loved that. I loved my customers. I loved making them happy.”

And in return they loved her. Kate Grillo of Vineyard Haven recalls picking up advertisements from the shop when she was an intern with the Vineyard Gazette decades ago.

“It’s a little blast from the past,” she said of the shop. “It’s really sad.” Through the years, Grillo became a customer, calling on the Cobbler Shop to fix not only shoes, but luggage and golf bags, among other things.

“I guess people don’t fix stuff anymore,” Grillo said. “When I was a kid, we would get our shoes fixed all the time, get new heels when the old ones wore out.”

The business has changed in recent years, MacMullen said. Shoes are made to wear out and new ones bought.

“The way people think about when they buy a product, how manufacturers are making them, they’re looking to get replaced rather than repaired,” she said. “Over the years, I really adjusted what I worked on — canvas, bags, jackets, horse stuff … I adjusted and went with a more all-fix-it, rather than just shoes.”

There’s no one to take over the home-based business, and her most recent employee, Darius Spain, wasn’t interested in renting space somewhere to keep the business going. The business can’t be sold where it is to someone else, because it’s not a business zone, MacMullen explained.

Spain is an accomplished cobbler, MacMullen said, but years of breathing in the chemicals can take their toll. He was ready to move on, too, and has already accepted a new job with the Post Office, she said.

There’s a basement filled with equipment available, if some well-heeled individual has aspirations of opening a shop and filling the limited niche somewhere else. “I’m open to anything,” MacMullen said.

For now, she’s working on her health and getting ready to welcome a grandchild into the family.

“I’m going to miss my customers a whole, whole lot,” MacMullen said. “My kids are saying, We’re going to have to move some of your sewing machines into your [Vineyard Haven] basement. I’m still trying to fix stuff. There’s always stuff to fix. I don’t know how anyone raised kids without a cobbler shop in their basement.”