To snuff a spark, to dull sharp rocks, there’s nothing like a leather boot. As necessary to the worker as a framing hammer or a chalk line, work boots keep their owners comfortable and safe on the job.
The last few years saw many boots unlaced as development stalled and jobs disappeared, with construction workers—carpenters and roofers, pipefitters and welders, cement masons and bricklayers—unemployed at more than double the rate of the general population. But things finally seem to be improving, says one local boot seller—and he would know.
“We’re kinda on the front line as far as the economy,” said Tony Traverso, a third-generation cobbler, behind the counter at his family’s shop on San Pablo Avenue. Although his shop carries some casual footwear, he said that before the 2008 recession, nearly 90 percent of his business was in work boots.
By 2010, roughly 25 percent of construction workers nationwide were unemployed, according to the Bureau of Labor Department. For Traverso, that meant dwindling sales. “I’ll tell you, it was a struggle,” he said. Now though, after several years of just scraping by, he said business is up.
The door opened, and in walked a man wearing dark sunglasses and a neon yellow vest, carrying boots. The soles are shot, the man said, and handed them to Traverso, who stashed them behind the counter.
Tim Barron, the boot owner, installs and works on fire sprinklers for a living. The last three or four years were hard, he said. Barron wasn’t unemployed, but jobs came infrequently—“and I’m a big dog at my company,” he said.
He wandered around the shop while Traverso filled out the work order, peering through his shades at the boots displayed on the wall. The work has picked up during the last three or four months, and he’s keeping busy again, Barron said. “I guess that stimulus money finally hit,” he said.
Traverso said that as boot sales have increased, he’s also getting more customers bringing in old boots and shoes for repairs. “Shoe repair is a lost art,” he said. Up through the 1960s and ‘70s, shoe repair stores were all over the place, but now his store is one of just a couple left in Richmond, he said. “We live in such a throwaway society,” he said.
Hung on the wall above him are black-and-white photographs of his grandfather and great uncle, who started the company in 1932, and his father, who ran the business until the early 2000s. Traverso grew up in the shop, he said; he sold his first shoe when he was 12 years old.
Barron headed out, back to work, leaving the shop empty. Traverso stepped away from the counter and picked one of the damaged boots. Anchoring it sole-up on a metal foot attached to a cluttered work bench, he grasped the edge of the sole with pliers held in one hand while he sliced through old stitching and glue with a knife held in the other.
He pulled the sole away from the boot and set it aside, examining the rubbery filler material underneath. “Looks good,” he said. Turning, he flipped on the row of grinders and buffers behind him. Excess glue and stitching came away in a spray of dust as he rotated the boot from one end to the other.
He slathered glue on both the boot and the inner layer of a new sole, let the glue set up a minute and stuck them together. He ran the protruding edges of the new sole under a crimper, and then, working a small knife toward his body, he sliced off the excess sole.
He turned again and positioned the boot sole-up under an oil-spattered sewing machine. The black cast-iron machine was made in the 1930s, he said; when it needs repairs he has to mill the new parts himself. “It can be a little finicky,” he said as he started it, but it chattered to life, no problem.
From the instep, round the heel, up the outside, around the toe, back down to the instep—he turned the boot quickly, leaving behind tight, neat stitches of waxed thread. The machine stopped. He tied off the line, and held up the boot. Voila.
It was just one of a few dozen pairs behind the counter, waiting for repairs. But before he could start on another, a man walked in, wearing a pair of leather boots.
A regular. “You know what it is,” the man said—busted laces. Traverso grabbed a pair from the bundle of laces draped over the counter and handed them to the man.
“Have you tried turning the eyelets?” Traverso asked him. The man shook his head. “Just use a screwdriver and turn them a little to stop them wearing,” Traverso told him. He thanked Traverso and exited.
Traverso repairs the boots he sells for a minimal fee, and gives away free laces to customers. “You won’t find that from Walmart,” he said. Customer loyalty is his store’s biggest asset, he said, and was the only thing that kept him going through the hard years. Unemployment among construction workers is back below 13 percent, and Traverso is relieved that his customers are finding work again. “When they’re doing good, we’re doing good,” he said.