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Published February 03, 2014, 02:34 PM

South Dakota cobbler runs one-of-a-kind business

MITCHELL, S.D. -- Michael Kavanagh was tired of holding his bib overalls together with a safety pin.

MITCHELL, S.D. -- Michael Kavanagh was tired of holding his bib overalls together with a safety pin.

Recently, the Plankinton resident walked into Charlie’s Shoe Repair in Mitchell.

“Come over here,” said Kathy Raymond, an assistant in the shop.

Within five minutes, Raymond affixed a new button to Kavanagh’s overalls -- while he wore them -- and he was on his way.

The charge: $3.

That’s the way Charlie Bailey takes care of his customers and has come to have so many loyal ones. If they need something on the fly, he and Raymond do their best to accommodate.

The shop’s story dates to 1961, when Bailey was 11. He was hanging out at a local pool hall with his friend Gary Fuerst, whose father, Lyle, was a cobbler -- a person who makes or repairs shoes and boots.

Bailey began sweeping Lyle Fuerst’s shop and moved his way up to learning the trade by working summers and after school.

The rural Mitchell native worked for Fuerst for a few years and decided in 1975 to open his own business.

“I just wanted to be my own boss,” he said.

For a year and a half, Bailey operated a Main Street shop and in 1977 moved the business across the street to its current location.

Until 1982, Bailey and Fuerst were the only two cobblers in town. Since Fuerst closed his doors that year, Bailey’s shop has been the only shoe repair option in Mitchell.

With a corner on the market, Bailey has been successful, he said, and his shop is evidence of that.

Customers’ shoes, boots, coats, overalls, bags, purses and other items of all types of material are in organized chaos behind the counter. Each item is tagged with customer information and what needs repair.

Many coats need seam or zipper repair and bags need rips fixed. Although Bailey said he’s working to scale back what he repairs, he is willing to fix nearly anything a customer brings in.

“I don’t say no very often,” he said.

During an interview with a reporter, Bailey stopped to examine the tongue of a hockey skate that had come loose. He wasn’t sure whether he could get it sewn all the way back on.

“But I’ll try,” he told the customer. “If I can’t, I won’t charge you anything.”

Looking to the next generation

At one point last year, Bailey had a rush of customers bringing in items to be fixed, thinking he was closing.

Despite the Mitchell Realty sign in the shop window and rumors floating around, Bailey, 63, said the shop is staying open.

“I’m not closing,” Bailey said with emphasis. “I want to make that very clear.”

He has been looking for a replacement, a young person to train as a next-generation cobbler.

“I’ve gotten a few nibbles,” he said.

He’s hoping to find just the right person to train and purchase the business. That’s proven difficult.

Should he not find the right person, Bailey said he’ll stick around for another three or four years. But he’s adamant he plans to find someone to take over.

The cobbler business is a dying one, Bailey admitted. He said in the last 10 years, about 60 percent or more of cobblers have closed nationwide due to loss of business or high rent. Bailey’s one of the fortunate few who own their buildings.

His shop is filled with items for sale along the wall, such as zippers, shoelaces, insoles and more. Behind the counter — where the magic happens — are squares of rubber, different sizes of soles, half-soles and heels, polishes, glues, nails, shoe stretchers, thread and all the tools of the trade.

Bailey said the cobbler business isn’t going anywhere.

“I think it’s always going to be around,” he said of shoe repair shops. “But it might be further away.”

His customers remain faithful, coming from as far away as Spencer, Neb.

“The circle is getting bigger because there are fewer shops,” Bailey said.

He has customers visit him from Sisseton, Aberdeen and Murdo, to name a few.

To keep those customers, Bailey reaches out farther for materials. He orders from companies in Billings, Mont.; Minneapolis; Ohio; New York state; and Missouri. Many companies that make shoe repair supplies are also closing due to less business, he said.

Changing times

As the shoe industry changed from sturdy, well-made shoes to cheaper, more disposable versions, Bailey said he has fought to keep in pace with a new age.

Despite the introduction of more man-made materials, Bailey’s customers still bring newer shoes to him for repair.

“I do a lot of gluing,” he said, referring to many shoes made of plastic and other materials.

When he started his business in the 1970s, Bailey’s work consisted mainly of repairing shoes, boots, purses and school bags. He did some zippers, but not many.

Even as cheaper materials have been introduced into shoe construction, Bailey said his customers still bring in items to be fixed.

“It’s cost effective,” he said. “Everything is expensive.”

One customer brings in a pair of high heels she’s had since the 1980s to be fixed every so often. He replaced the heels for her two weeks ago, Bailey said.

Many people purchase used items online from sites like eBay and don’t want to return them. Bailey said the items aren’t perfect, but his customers like them, so they bring the shoes, purses and other items to him for mending.

Bailey does a lot of work for Mitchell’s show choir, Friend de Coup. He recently cut tops off other boots and sewed them onto existing boots to make them taller. He also added elastic for larger calves and added grip to the boot soles.

Some customers bring in new shoes to be stretched. One customer picked up a pair of leather loafers recently that Bailey stretched for him. The customer has hammer toes, Bailey said, and needed a little extra room. Bailey uses a shoe stretcher — a wooden shoe-shaped item, split in two with a rod down the middle to separate it and stretch the shoe. He then sprays the shoe with water and lets it sit to stretch.

Other customers bring in shoes to be shined. Art Rew, a local businessman and former mayor, has been a customer for about 30 years.

Rew has had Bailey replace soles, fix zippers and keep his shoes buffed and polished. Rew said Bailey even fixed his wife’s favorite pair of sandals by replacing a buckle.

“He does excellent work,” Rew said of Bailey. “Always has.”

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