Fix-It Nation: In Tough Times, Tailors and Cobblers Thrive

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Lido Vizzutti / Flathead Beacon / AP

Joe Lynch, owner of Glenn's Shoe Repair, replaces a band of rubber on a snowcat boot at his shop in Kalispell, Mont.

Where's the trendiest place to shop these days? Try your closet. To wit: Kelly Thorsen, a school secretary from Lakeland, Fla., needed a nice pair of boots for the holiday season. A new pair would have cost some $200, and a splurge was not an option for the mother of two. "Last year, I might have gone out and started looking around," says Thorsen, 46. "Now we are being a lot more careful with where our dollars are being spent. To go out and purchase a new pair of boots was not in my realm." (See the 25 people to blame for the financial crisis.)

So she literally dusted off a decade-old pair of ragged black leather boots sitting in her closet and visited a shoe-repair shop for the first time in her life. For a fashion-conscious woman, the thought of recycling clothing hurt her pride a bit. "I walked in with my tail between my legs," she says. "It was something, initially, I was not proud of." Then she saw the price: $16. And the work: the boots looked as good as new. "I walked out of there going, 'O.K., all right,'" Thorsen says. She proudly wore her healed heels to all her holiday parties. (Read how much it costs to get your shoes custom-made by some of the world's best and most famous cobblers.)

As consumers cut back on big-ticket purchases this year, many fix-it folks are busier than ever. Whyspend money on new shoes, suits or SUVs when it's so much cheaper to repair the ones you already have? Around the country, cobblers, tailors, car mechanics and bike, vacuum, watch and television repairers are reporting strong revenues during the recession. Jim McFarland, a third-generation shoe repairman, who owns McFarland's Shoe Repair in Lakeland, has fought many anxiety bouts in his 23 years running the shop. "I've spent nights pacing my floor at 2, 3 in the morning, wondering, How am I going to get through this?" says McFarland, who teethed on leather as a baby. "Now I sleep the whole night through," he says. "I've never seen it like this — it's wonderful." (See which businesses are bucking the recession.)

McFarland says his year-over-year revenues rose 28% in December and 35% in January. "I'd love to see a 50% jump in February," he says. As the historian for the Shoe Service Institute of America, the cobbler trade group, McFarland tracks local media stories on shoe-repair performance and talks to hundreds of shop owners throughout the country. He says cobblers are reporting increases in the range of 25% to 40% during the fourth quarter of 2008 and early '09. (See a gallery of Olympic shoe designs.)

In the past, one of the biggest challenges tradespeople faced was a psychological barrier that kept consumers out of the repair shop: I will not stoop so low as to squeeze more life out of these musty shoes or this old dress. That feeling still exists. An Indianapolis publishing executive named Pat, who just took four suit jackets in for restoration, asked that her last name not be printed because "it's nobody's business that I'm recycling clothing." But the economic realities eventually prevail. Pat was looking to extend her wardrobe when she chose between new and used. "Should I buy, or look in the closet and see what I can do with the clothes that are already there?" she says. She picked the closet and is pleased with the results. (Read more about the new trend of used clothes.)

For tailors who also make custom clothing in their shops, the alteration game is a savior. Joyce Hittesdorf, president of the Association of Sewing and Design Professionals, who runs her own small business in Carmel, Ind., has picked up about eight new clients over the past month. "They were all looking to salvage what they had," she says. "Alterations were the secondary part of our business. Now they're more primary." At Imparali Custom Tailors in New York City, new custom-suit sales fell about 20% in 2008, while revenues from fix-up jobs jumped 30%. Matt Harpalani, the shop's manager, notes that many of his customers who have lost weight now opt for an alteration rather than a new Armani. "The alteration business has paid our rent," Harpalani says. (Read "How to Know When the Economy Is Turning Up.")

The repair trade is delivering positive numbers even to the wrecked automobile industry. Since consumers can't afford a new car right now, they are holding on to their old ones longer. During December, for example, the average trade-in time for cars was 6.3 years, compared with 5.7 years in 2007. These rides often need repairs to stay alive. "Overall, our members are saying they are seeing a revenue increase," says Angie Wilson, vice president of marketing and communications for the Automotive Service Association, which represents 8,000 independent car-repair shops in the U.S. According to an association survey, 60% of auto-repair shops said they saw an increase in '08 year-over-year sales. The average jump was 16%. (The survey was taken in August, before the financial meltdown. Auto-industry economists say repair growth slowed in the fourth quarter as customers deferred big-ticket maintenance jobs during the worst months of the downturn, and that pent-up demand will lift the numbers in '09.) (See pictures of the remains of Detroit: America's fading Motor City.)

Further, even though car dealerships are like ghost towns these days, on-site-service sales rose 2% during the past four months. Paul Taylor, chief economist of the National Automobile Dealers Association, is projecting growth "significantly above 3%" this year. "It's welcome news," Taylor says of the repair rise. "It's important that when consumer expenditures are dead in the water, this sector of the economy is growing."

While the recession has helped all types of repair professions, cobblers seem to be enjoying their luck more than others. Shoe repair is a dying industry. During the Great Depression, there were some 130,000 shops in the country. Now there are only 7,000. Graying, middle-aged repairers are the Young Turks; there's a clear shortage of 20- and 30-something cobblers in today's shops. "We have a chance to reintroduce our industry," says Randy Lipson, who runs four shoe-repair shops in St. Louis, Mo. The shoes are falling off the shelves in Lipson's shops; he now has to stuff the overflow work into bins. A year ago, those same shelves were half empty. "I'm getting more customers under 35 than I've ever seen," says Lipson. "They're spreading the word among people their age about the quality and savings shops like ours can offer, and it's helping."

McFarland, the Florida shoe repairman, thinks a two-year downturn would give the industry a "shot in the arm" that could last 10 to 15 years. But even McFarland is quick to temper his excitement. He too realizes that what's good for the cobbler might be bad for the souls of his countrymen. "The more people we get," he says, "the worse it is out there."

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