When I stepped inside the quaint, old-world shoe repair shop on Seven Mile Lane, close to Reisterstown Road, I was transported back several decades to my childhood in New Haven, Connecticut. The same ragged shoes and boots were piled high on a workbench, waiting to be rejuvenated; an array of shoe polish, creams, and sprays were lined up on a shelf; assorted shoe inserts, shoelaces, and men’s black rubber overshoes were prominently displayed; and key-making machines stood behind the counter. Even the earthy smell of leather was the same. The one difference was that this shoemaker also repairs watches and sells watch batteries!
I had the pleasure of getting to know Rafael Mosheyve, the shop’s hard-working proprietor as he was in the middle of shortening 12 men’s belts for a customer who lost a lot of weight. While dexterously manipulating a variety of hand tools to accomplish this task, he serviced a steady flow of customers. It was Thursday, one of his busiest days. I was surprised to learn that the shop repairs not only shoes but also belts, luggage, jackets, and pocketbooks. There was even a golf bag in the corner awaiting repair.
Rafael grew up in the communist former Soviet Union. A native of Tajikistan, he settled in Baltimore 25 years ago. “I learned how to do shoemaking from my grandfather, back in Russia,” shares Rafael, who is also trained in mechanics and machinery skills. “In Russia, shoemaking was different, though. Here there is more technology and more machines. So coming from Russia and becoming a shoemaker right away is a little bit tough; you have to learn a lot more. I had to apprentice for someone before opening my own place. This shop is over 50 years old; I am the third owner.”
Rafael’s business is a family affair. His wife, 17-year-old daughter, and 15-year-old son all help out in the shop, behind the front desk as they are not trained to repair leather goods. Rafael’s one trained assistant is Spanish-speaking. Shoemaking, explains the former Russian, is more than just banging nails into shoes.
Rafael interrupts himself to explain something to a customer who just walked in, and I turn to examine a glass case housing a large, colorful display of miniature collectible shoes and boots from around the world, made in every style and material. They made their way into his shop in various ways, I later learn. Some he picked up at flea markets and yard sales. Others were gifted by happy, grateful customers, as was a framed artwork piece, depicting a frum shoemaker. The largest pair of shoes that a customer gave him for a gift, couldn’t fit in this case and needed to be hung on the wall: a pair of authentic wooden clogs from Holland.
“Are the miniatures for sale? I ask him.
“No,” he chuckles, “Sometimes it takes me months and months to find one!”
Rafael apologizes for having to walk to the back of his shop to retrieve a pick-up for yet another customer. When he returns, it comes up during the course of conversation that he traveled to Germany last year to attend the international shoe repair convention, which is held there every three years.
“At the convention, they have displays of new things that have come on the market, and you can learn new techniques,” says Rafael. “Most of the Germans don’t want to teach new techniques to anybody, so if you see something new there, you’ve got to steal it with your eyes!”
Rafael says there is no telling how many pairs of shoes and boots he will be fixing in any one week. “It all depends,” he says, raising his voice above the shrill noise of the key-cutting machine while serving the next customer. “It can be 20 pairs, or it can be 50 pairs, depending on the types of jobs I get that week. Thursdays and Fridays are my busiest days.”
I ask Rafael if he can share any memorable customer stories with me and my photographer, Esky Cook. He agreed, and this was just one of several that he has collected over his 18 years of being in business:
“A long time ago, a customer came to pick up a pair of shoes that needed taps. When it came time to pay me, he apologized that he didn’t have any money on him. I told him he could bring it to me later. When he started walking to his car, I noticed that he dropped three dollars. I went after him and told him that he dropped his money. He said it wasn’t his, but I said it must be his, since he was the only one who had been in the shop. He told me that he will get me the other dollar that he owed me from his car. Then he said, ‘I can’t believe what happened – how you trusted me and even ran after me to give me my dropped money. From now on, you will be my only shoe repairer in the world!’ From him, we got more customers.”
Clearly, for Rafael, shoemaking is just not a job. It is a means of bonding with people. This was corroborated when he tells me that he is still very upset – after six months – about the sudden passing of a longtime customer who would stop by his shop two or three times a week. He only found out about his passing two weeks after the fact.
On the flip side, Rafael rejoices when his customers are making a simcha, and he enjoys getting together with them for Yamim Tovim. “They invite me to their weddings and other simchos, a lot,” remarks Rafael, as he quickly replaces taps on a pair of shoes as the customer waits. “And for Pesach and Rosh Hashana, they also invite me.”
Next, a Russian woman walks into the shop and explains to Rafael in their native tongue that she cannot find her claim ticket. She was hospitalized after bringing her leather item in for repair, last April! Looking up her order by her phone number, he was able to quickly retrieve the item for the grateful customer.
Although law mandates that Rafael must hold on to an item left in his shop for up to a year, walking a mile in his customers’ shoes – so to speak – he has even held on to one luggage collection for over four years! After a year, he will persistently call the customer with a reminder to pick it up. If there is still no response after that, the item will typically be donated.
Before I leave his shop, I ask Rafael for his expert advice: “How do you know when it is time to throw out your shoes? Can you tell when they are not worth repairing anymore?”
He answers, “It all depends on the customer; if the customer would like us to, we try to fix it.”
“Does that mean you can have one pair of shoes for your whole life?”
“We can’t say that, not really. But we try our best to fix shoes so the customer will be happy and enjoy his shoes as long as possible!” he answers with a chuckle.
When I returned home, my curiosity – a trait of mine since childhood – prompted me to Google, “Why do shoemakers also make keys?” There were 1,180,000 results! Seems like throughout the world the shoe repair and key-cutting businesses are paired (no pun intended!), and even the shoemakers themselves can’t explain why!