Boot seller: Construction jobs are coming back

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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.

5 Comments

  1. SInce WWII if you were a construction worker and worked in the Greater Bay Area, you bought your work boots at Traverso’s Red WIng. If you bought your shoes anywhere else, then real construction hands knew you were nothing more than a poser–a fake who was just whiling away his time playing at being a construction worker.

    We went to Traverso’s because they sold a top notch product and they provided the customized service that brings customers back year after year–generation after generation.

    Before my own retirement as a steamfitter (Plumbers & Steamfitters Local 342), I would go to Traverso’s to buy my boots and even though I might only go in maybe once per year, they knew my name. They’d go to their gray metal box where they kept cards on their customers to track their customers’ purchasing habits. They knew your size and what makes and models you had purchased in the past.

    Near the end of my career when I’d go in they knew my name but–being about 180 years old–the owners might not remember my first name. That’s when they’d run into trouble, though. They’d pull out the file drawer to check my card and there might be 50-75 cards with the name Gosney on it. That’s when they blushed and had to ask what my first name was.

    Sometimes when trying to decide which work (or dress) boot to buy, I’d be stuck and couldn’t make up my mind. It wasn’t unusual for them to offer me a two-fer deal where the prices was so good if I bought both pairs that there’s no way I could say no. We both got what we needed. I got a couple of great pairs of boots and they got my money.

    EVERYONE in my family was in the business and even when they moved to Vacaville, Fairfield or Antioch, they kept coming back to Traverso’s for their shoes.

    Since they came out from Oklahoma at the beginning of WWII to build the Liberty and Victory ships, Traverso’s is where we bought our work boots. When you’re on your feet 10-12 hours per day under less than ideal conditions, you need to know you can count on your work shoes. And that’s why you go to Traverso’s Red Wing and let those posers go to WalMart.

    And even though I wear sandals these days, whenever I can I still head back to Traverso’s for my sandal repair.

    You take care of local businesses. They’re a part of our heritage–a part of the fabric of what our community’s all about.

  2. We appreciate the great job Zach St. George has done on this article featuring our son, Antonio. What a wonderful way to begin an 80-year celebration of our family business.

    We enjoyed reading Mr. Gosney’s gracious compliments. Long-time customers such as he have always inspired us to provide the best service possible. We would not be in business today if not for thousands of loyal customers shopping in our Richmond and Dublin stores. We believe in complete customer satisfaction. It has been a part of the Traverso family legacy for all of our 80 years.

    Thank you Mr. St. George for representing our business so well. And thank you to
    Mr. Gosney and all of our great customers. We will always be grateful for your business.

    John and Sharon Traverso, Owners

  3. Mano k.

    You wrote such a long article, but missed the basic but key info of highlighting the name & exact address of the boots shop.

    • Let me help with this.

      It’s just called RED WING shoe store and it’s at:
      12557 San Pablo Avenue Richmond, CA 94805. This is the corner of Solano and San Pablo Avenues.

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