The lost art of being a cobbler: Caldwell Shoe Repair Service, saving soles since 1935
The first thing I heard from a customer after walking into Caldwell Shoe Repair Service at 15 West Street in Easton was, “The art of shoe repair is a lost art.”
Since 1935, Caldwell Shoe Repair has been repairing everything from high heels to wingtips, and from purses to horse saddles. The shop was founded in 1935 by Charles Caldwell after he went to school for shoe repair in Bordentown, NJ. He operated the shop with his brother Stanley until their deaths in the late 1990s.
The shop, which was originally located on Federal Street in Easton, moved to its current location during the 1960s. Both Charles and Stanley drove school buses, working in the shop in between driving their buses. They were two of 14 children raised on a farm in Wittman. Their parents, the only African Americans to own two farms in the Bay Hundred area, raised turkeys, cows and chickens. The two men took off Wednesday afternoons to help on the farm.
Since 1999, the shop has been managed by Leroy Potter (age 68) with Ricky Caldwell (age 72), a nephew of Charles and Stanley Caldwell. Both men started working in the shop after school to learn the trade.
“We had to learn it all,” Caldwell said. “They wouldn’t say it was done wrong. They would say ‘It doesn’t suit me.’ That’s how we learned.”
While each had his own career while also working in the shop, Potter as a custodian at Easton Elementary School for more than 30 years and Caldwell as a school bus driver for Talbot County Public Schools for more than 40 years, they are enjoying their work in the shoe repair business in their retirement years.
“If your eyesight is good, you can work in this business for a while,” Potter said.
The shop has always had a focus on customer service from its beginning.
“If the shoes don’t fit, we tell people to bring them back,” Caldwell said. “We don’t let anything go out of here we aren’t proud of.”
Then and now: Stanley and Charles Caldwell operated Caldwell Shoe Repair Service until the late 1990s. Now, Leroy Porter and Ricky Caldwell manage the shop.
Caldwell Shoe Repair is owned by Charlene DeShields, a teacher at Easton Elementary School, who is Charles Caldwell’s daughter. She took over ownership after Charles died in 1997 and Stanley died in 1999.
“It’s not a place that makes a lot of money, but I am holding on to it because it’s a family legacy and because it is one of a few shops like this left. We may be the only shoe repair shop on the Mid-Shore. It’s like the old local barber shop which has had its customers forever,” DeShields said.
The shop does a variety of repairs, including stretching shoes, putting elastic in shoes, putting new soles on shoes and boots, repairing heels of shoes and cutting down heels, sewing horse saddles, bridles, and other leather work (like purses and belts), and building shoes up for customers’ orthopedic issues. At one time the shop dyed shoes for formal occasions such as weddings and proms when women wanted their shoes to match their dress.
In 83 years, the shop has received a number of unusual requests. Once, the shope re-soled a pair of men’s boots made from rhinoceros hide. Another customer once requested the shop make a pair of leather moccasins for his labrador retriever. Recently, the shop dyed a jacket for Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot.
On any given day, there is a steady stream of customers in the shop. At first glance, it appears that there are piles of shoes everywhere. Because of a system of tags that has been around since the early days of the business, both men seem to know where everything is.
“A lady came in last week,” Potter said. “Her shoes had been in here for two years. We have one pair of shoes which have been there since 2009.”
“When they come back in, we find them,” Caldwell said.
Most shoes find their way back to their owners, but if not, the shop donates abandoned shoes to the Salvation Army when they are not picked up after a period of time.
Several signs on display in the shop were made by students at Easton Elementary School.
Even though a lot of people buy shoes they can throw away today, the shop hasn’t had a decline in business.
“There are still good brands of shoes being made,” Potter said. “If you buy good shoes, they can last you a long time. We have some shoes that have come in here multiple times for repair.”
The shop’s success is built on its repeat customers. Lisa Wilson Spears of Cordova, who owns Beauty Restoration Treatment Center across the street from Caldwell’s Shoe Shop, brought in some purses for repair.
“I’ve been coming in with whatever I can’t fix myself,” Spears said. “They are entrepreneurs, and I like to support my own, spending my money in my community.”
Sitting by the same oil stove that heated the shop when it was new, Potter and Caldwell reflect on their favorite parts of their day.
“It’s fun greeting customers with a smile to make their day go well,” Caldwell said. “We always have fun here. We have been happy working together all these years.”
DeShields credits the family’s work ethic in making the family business successful.
“It’s a family affair; together we’re better. My father and uncle were hard workers. They worked hard to achieve and have things for their families.”
She added, “The community has been a blessing to us.”