Holding a men’s dress shoe in one hand, John Caros brushed rubber cement between the layers of the sole. On shelves all around him were more shoes, all waiting for repairs. The owner of , Caros spends his days replacing heels broken off women’s shoes and repairing favorite loafers men have worn straight through the bottoms.
Caros also does a lot of business in stretching shoes that seemed comfortable in the shoe store but, upon arriving home, were discovered to pinch toes. The amount of stretching possible depends on the leather, Caros said, but “99 out of 100 times, it works.” There’s even a stretching machine bunion attachment that can push out one specific part of the shoe.
Is there ever a time he can’t repair a shoe? “Yeah, when they come in three pieces,” Caros said, chuckling. Barring that, he does his best with all the shoes his customers bring in, even when the case looks hopeless.
Winchester Shoe Hospital was opened in 1927 by Caros’ father. Caros’ uncle worked at the store too, and Caros grew up in the business. He took it over from his father in 1963, and now works by himself.
Along one wall of the narrow shop is a line of black machines, each performing an essential shoe repair function: nailers for men’s and women’s shoes, sanders, burnishers, and sewing machines. Some, Caros remarked with a wistful note, don’t get used much anymore, including the nailers and the machine for fixing what he called “nun’s heels,” the ones with rounded edges.
Yet, after all these years, customers still bring their shoes in for repair. Many are men who have a favorite pair of shoes they’ve broken in perfectly and don’t want to lose. Caros often works on shoes that cost several hundred dollars, making replacing the soles more cost-effective than replacing the entire pair of shoes. Repair prices start at $15 for women’s shoes, and can run up to $86 for replacing a men’s sole and heel.
Caros said his own costs have risen substantially in recent years, with prices for rubber cement and other necessary solvents going “sky high,” and fluctuations in currency for imported goods like the Italian-made leather soles he buys. He can’t pass all those higher costs on to his customers, he said, because there’s only so much he can raise his prices.
Though timing depends on the shoe’s condition, Caros said most repairs are completed in about a week. He knows many of his customers very well and thrives on repeat business. Last week, two different customers walked into the store, were immediately greeted by name, and instantly directed to their fixed-up shoes.
Caros said his favorite part of his job is being his own boss. After a pause, he added with a mischievous glance, “And I can sneak out when I want.”
But he does answer to the customers. Sometimes when he puts up his “Back in 15 minutes” sign, he returns to find someone waiting impatiently outside the door, wanting to know where he’s been. Caros said he expects to be right there on Thompson Street for awhile yet. Despite 49 years repairing shoes, he has no plans to retire.
Winchester Shoe Hospital is open Tuesday through Saturday, 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and closed for a daily lunch break from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m.