- Associated Press - Saturday, April 26, 2014

KENOSHA, Wis. (AP) - Think twice before tossing out those really comfy Allen Edmonds, Clarks, Keens, Gabors, Pikolinos, Kois, Chippewas, Durangos or whatever trusty footwear - flip-flops don’t count - you’ve come to love.

The same goes for that weathered leather jacket with its well-worn patina, that purse that goes perfectly with, well, whatever you bought it for. Heck, even your dog’s bed doesn’t need to be kicked curbside just because it’s ripped a bit.

Especially when you shelled out a pile of greenbacks for a high-end product.

Besides if you have a fondness for those personal items, a visit to a local shoemaker’s shop, where repairs might be possible at a small fraction of the cost for new replacements, could prove priceless.

Drop in at Torcaso & Sons Shoe Repair on 39th Avenue, one of two such shops in Kenosha, and you’ll find all manner of repairs taking place in various stages and in different stages behind the counter - and in front of it, where the small “waiting” room appears to be a disordered jumble of disarray. OK, to the unpracticed eye, both sides look impossibly cluttered.

In reality, you’re seeing ordered chaos, which lends the mom-n-pop shop much of its charm and presents nary a sorting challenge for siblings Ray Torcaso and Paula (Torcaso) Spizzirri. They’re the third generation to ply the trade passed down from their late grandfather and father. (Like them, their brother, Steve, worked with their dad when they were younger. These days, Steve is president of the Italian American Society in Kenosha and runs its club, restaurant and banquet facilities.)

“I want to educate the young people today: Instead of throwing things out, you can get them fixed. They can probably get their purse fixed for the price of a fancy Starbucks latte,” Spizzirri tells the Kenosha News (http://bit.ly/1mp45rZ).

“Today, young kids are all concerned about the environment,” Torcaso says with a nod. “Well, this is the oldest ‘green’ industry there is. We save I don’t know how many tons of shoes from landfills.”

He acknowledges the use of some solvent-based materials in repairs, but he also points out the amounts are far less than what gets used to manufacture new shoes nowadays. In addition, some manufacturers produce recycled-rubber heel and sole replacements, as is the case with Goodyear Neolite.

“Working on shoes is always evolving because of different materials,” said Torcaso, who, like Spizziri, splits his time working in the Kenosha shop with time he spends at their Lake Geneva location.

They work as they talk, pointing out repair details, the heavy machinery and lighter cobbler’s hand tools used in their trade. The shop smells of leather, shoe polish and glues. When they flip on the industrial floor-mounted buffers, polishers, grinding wheels, lathes, belt sanders, nailers and sewing machines, the air seems to hum smoothly in tune with vibrations underfoot.

Shoes, including a pair of New Balance athletic shoes, widen, lengthen or do both - silently - by way of varied types of stretching implements. Wait, what? It’s 2014. Who in the world wants their shoes stretched?

“Oh, a ton of people. They buy bargains. Their feet change. They have bunions or corns,” Spizzirri said.

Her main specialty is patching. “I also work the buffer, do the polishing, gluing, sewing. Sewing is the bulk of my business, maybe 80 percent of what comes in, but it’s not a ton of money. The meat and potatoes are the soles and heels (on shoes) and work boot soles,” Spizzirri said.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Torcaso, who in 43 years has done every facet of shoe repair since he was knee-high to his dad and has handmade some very nice custom boots (but only on a very limited basis), has earned a reputation for quality work well beyond Kenosha and Walworth counties. “Don’t put this in there,” he says in a low voice, “but I have shoemakers calling up for advice from around the country. I’m meticulous.”

Watching him make fairly short work of trimming and finishing a pair of heels, Paula shakes her head admiringly. “That’s another thing. He has such a good eye for leveling uneven heels. That’s just another skill,” she marvels.

“In days like my grandpa’s, you could get heels fixed in five minutes because the shoes were made better,” Torcaso said, explaining how mass production, cheap materials and throwaway designing deliberately discourages people from even considering repairs. Adds Torcaso: “I like working on good, old-fashioned leather shoes, the shoes like I first started working on. When you get a pair in now, it’s fun working on them.”

Work boot bottoms are among the most challenging repairs that come into the shop. “The factories don’t make them for us to work on. They want to sell you a new pair,” he said. That can mean improvising with materials, fit, comfort.

“But I like doing that,” Torcaso said, indicating some of the tools in drawers and atop the workbenches, including several different types of “French hammers” and a “Crispin hammer,” the latter named for the patron saint of shoemakers. Many of the implements - including possibly the most versatile common to the trade, a hand-operated, so-called “5-in-1” for pressing sole welts, cutting and paring heels, nailing - have been in the Torcaso toolbox for generations.

While being interviewed they continue to work and serve patrons, many who’ve been coming here for generations and with whom they banter freely. Even a first time walk-in gets greeted like a longtime customer. She leaves surprised and happy when Spizzirri repairs her purse on the spot.

Another, a biker who regularly wears out boot soles and heels riding his motorcycle, looks over the new Vibram replacements afixed by Torcaso, as well as the shine polished into them by Spizzirri. They look new, even though he bought them eight years ago and has worn them regularly for more than 30,000 miles. “These are better than what they came with,” he tells them.

Torcaso and Spizzirri take everything in stride.

After a winter like this year’s patrons are worried salt has permanently damaged their footwear.

“We have a deep de-salting treatment. Then, I add a conditioner, and I polish them out,” Spizzirri tells a customer, who is pleased to find no evidence of telltale white burn left on his black leather boots.

When the shop temporarily clears, Spizzirri and Torcaso advise the best way to prevent such damage is to waterproof and polish the shoes before wearing them, then reapplying polish periodically.

“People think you buy an expensive shoe, and it’s just magical. You’ve got to bring the magic to the shoes,” Spizzirri says.

With that, she moves on to a pair of sandals, removes a worn Velcro strap fastener and replaces it, as Torcaso gets busy putting new soles and heels on a pair of western-style, ostrich-skin boots.

___

Information from: Kenosha News, http://www.kenoshanews.com

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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