The difference between Joe Lynch’s 1950s Singer sewing machine, bought secondhand for $150, and his new $5,000 Claes machine is clear.
The old one is just so much better.
But the fact that Lynch needs the new one at his shop, Glenn’s Shoe Repair in downtown Kalispell, is a sign of the changing times. He needs the new one to deal with heavier loads and modern materials, even if it’s inferior in all other regards.
“That old one is ten times the machine the new one is,” Lynch said.
At Glenn’s Shoe Repair, Lynch works quietly by himself. He has no employees, but a steady stream of customers ensures he’s rarely alone. They bring him tap shoes, cowboy boots, Teva sandals, purses, belts, dog collars: If it requires stitching or re-gluing, he can probably do it. But leather is his bread and butter, like with other traditional shoemakers and repairmen in the West. As synthetics become increasingly popular, however, and shoemakers are forced to adapt, many repair shops simply fold up. There’s only one other shoe repair shop left in the valley, Cal’s Boot and Shoe Repair on North Meridian Street.
Lynch has owned Glenn’s for 24 years, watching the arrival and subsequent departure of a half-dozen or so other repair shops in Kalispell alone. Within the last year, he said, shoe repair shops in Whitefish and Columbia Falls have gone out of business. To survive, Lynch said he has embraced change, learning to work with new cements, primers, glues, threads, plastics and the whole gamut. Today Lynch said he works with about 50 percent leather products and 50 percent “other,” a term increasingly difficult to define.
“Used to have enough cowboy and working boots that if you didn’t want to work on those other shoes, you didn’t have to,” he said. “That’s taken a toll on a lot of these other shops.”
The duties of a shoe repairman range from a several-minute stitch job to a week-and-a-half rebuild on a pair of logging boots. A customer’s wait, however, is based more on the flexibility of Lynch’s schedule than the amount of time he spends on an individual job. Even in the slow season of January, Lynch is backed up with work for four or five days. In the summer, when everybody’s active and he gets piles of sandals every day, you might have to wait two weeks to get your shoes back.
Sometimes, Lynch said, customers get their shoes back in better condition than when they bought them. He said it’s not rare for him to put in a better sole than the factory’s, not to mention the care he puts into the stitching and other work. Also, some jobs require adjusting, rather than repairing, like his “orthopedic work” – if a person’s left leg is shorter than the right, he’ll even things out by tinkering with the soles.
He quit making shoes from scratch about six years ago because he ran out of time. There are just too many repair jobs.
“It’s not unusual to handle 100 pairs a day,” he said. “I don’t necessarily send 100 out the door, but I’ll work on that many.”
In today’s throwaway culture, Lynch understands that a fair percentage of his potential business ends up in the garbage. A lot of people now don’t even think to get repairs done, if they are aware that such a business exists at all. If the toe is blown out on a pair of sneakers, most people consider the shoes dead. Lynch is encouraged, however, by the emerging emphasis today on recycling.
Furthermore, Lynch said, when people can buy a $12 pair of shoes from China, it’s unlikely they’ll be willing to dish out any money for repairs. There are exceptions, though, some of which make Lynch chuckle.
“I have people that would put $40 into a $12 pair of shoes because they like the shoes,” he said. “Then there’s some people that won’t put $10 into a $200 pair of shoes.”
Lynch grew up working with leather, repairing saddles and other things around his parents’ Kalispell house. But it wasn’t until he got bored with business school at the University of Montana and transferred to the shoemaking department at Oklahoma State that he got serious about feet.
A few years after wrapping up shoemaking school, Lynch bought the Kalispell shop from his uncle, Glenn Koski, who had operated it for seven years after buying it from its founder, a Ukrainian man. All told, a shoe repair shop has stood in that same location for the better part of a half-century, an impressive feat considering how much everything else has changed around it.
Glenn’s sells custom-made leather boots from Spokane and homemade leather belts from a friend in the area. Lynch also sells waxes, polishes and other shoe care products. The retail is necessary, he said. Even though he might get between $70 and $150 to fully rebuild a logging boot, he charges less than $10 for a lot of jobs. His minimum is $3.50. Anything less isn’t worth the work.
“You just have to do a huge volume of work to make it in this business,” he said. “You can’t rely on just the repair end of the business.”
Near an old, dirty rotary dial phone that serves as the shop’s most progressive technological device hangs a sign reminding people to “Keep Smiling.” Lynch, obviously a disciple of its message, laughs as he explains to a customer why it’s important to stay healthy as a shoemaker.
“Well, I have to (stay healthy),” Lynch explained, “because I have to work until I’m 90. That’s one of the benefits of working here – I get to work until I’m dead.”
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