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Thursday, Aug. 2, 2012 12:16 pm

Kicking it

Dick’s Shoe Repair says goodbye

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After nearly three decades of fixing shoes, Mark Yeates has closed his shop to start a new career in scuba diving.
PHOTO BY PATRICK YEAGLE

Back in the day, when spade soles were the rage and all Florsheims were made in America, there were plenty of places to get shoes fixed in the capital city.

Springfield had 21 cobbler’s shops in 1957, when Vern’s Shoe Service started business at 314 West Laurel, taking over space that had been the province of a dry-cleaner-and-furrier shop and, before that, a Kroger grocery store launched in 1925. Laurel Shoe Rebuilders was just a block away at 208 West Laurel.

Nine shoe-repair shops were left in 1974, when Dick Yeates moved from a downtown Springfield shop, taking over from Vern and, in a stroke of imagination, changing the shop’s name to Dick’s Shoe Repair. And now, there is just one, with Dick’s Shoe Repair having hammered its last nail on Tuesday.

Mark Yeates, who took over the store from his parents in 1992, has hung up his apron to become manager of a scuba diving shop.

“I’ve decided I don’t want to be a hunched-over little cobbler beating on shoes,” Mark Yeates told one of his final customers last week as he prepared to close the shop and launch a new career that dovetails with a passion.

The Heel Shop on South Walnut Street, Springfield’s last remaining shoe-repair business, is already seeing an uptick in businesss, according to owner Dave Updegraff, but there is a flip side.

“It’s going to mean a lot more hours,” Updegraff said.

Just 4 percent of shoe wearers in the United States avail themselves of shoe-repair services, Updegraff says, but that is still a lot of shoes. As cobblers faded away in Springfield, the remaining ones made good livings, judging from numbers at Dick’s, where between 200 and 300 pairs of shoes got the best possible care each week, Mark Yeates says.

“I’m not closing because we don’t have work,” Mark Yeates says.

Dick Yeates, who helped out in the shop along with his wife, Loretta, until the end, said it’s the kind of work that takes about three months of on-the-job training before a neophyte can make any money. After a year, he said, a cobbler gets to be pretty good. There were once schools that taught the craft, Dick Yeates said, but he doesn’t know of any that still exist. He went into business for himself in 1968, taking over a downtown shop, when a shoe repairman made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.

“He said ‘I’ll teach you and sell you my shop,’” Dick Yeates recalled. “So he taught me and sold me the business.”

The air last week inside Dick’s was as thick with nostalgia as with the smell of leather. There is now one fewer place in Springfield to find two dozen different shades of polish, including navy blue, imperial blue, red, cardinal red, sherwood (a fancy name for green), dark brown, medium brown, dusky brown, fashion brown and, of course, lilac. Good luck buying edge dressing at Walgreens: At Dick’s, it sat on a shelf next to Cork Renew, which promises to protect, seal and waterproof – comfort food for Birkenstocks.

Mark Yeates did it all during his 29 years of working on shoes, from fixing gun holsters to adding several inches to one sole of a $1.97 pair of flip-flops for an owner with one leg shorter than the other (he recalls the bill coming to $35) to stitching together rabbit pelts to fashion a bikini for the wife of a hunter.

“I was not going to stick around for the fitting,” Yeates says.

Customer after customer last Friday bemoaned the loss of the shop and Yeates’ decision to swap shoes for scuba diving.

“He was the very, very, very best,” said Colleen Moore. “You could always depend on him to do it right. He will be missed – greatly.”

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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