- Associated Press - Monday, January 30, 2017

BATESVILLE, Ark. (AP) - With a storefront that measures only a scant nine feet in width, drivers on Batesville’s lower Main Street might easily miss the cubbyhole long, narrow shop.

And with no phone number, customers might wonder how to get in touch with the owner.

But James D. Wheeler is doing something right - Wheeler Boot and Shoe Repair has been in business more than 40 years.

When I told a friend I was doing a story on the business, she likened its historical, aged uniqueness to the wand shop in the Harry Potter movies. I have to agree. I have never come across another business like it in my 34 years.

The entire shop (like the storefront) is only nine feet wide, so one may wonder what sort of business could possibly fit in such a small space.

“It was the only vacant building in 1972 in Batesville,” explained Wheeler, who also goes by “Jim.” ”The building used to be an alleyway in the 1930s, but a man bought it and put a roof and floor in.”

Now 73, Wheeler said he grew up in the shoe repair business. His dad, James O. Wheeler, started repairing shoes after serving in World War II.

“Mr. Heuer of Heuer’s Shoe Store taught shoe repair to the vets and GIs getting out of the service, and my dad was one of them,” Jim said. James O. Wheeler had served in the U.S. Army during World War II in Africa, Italy and France in five different campaigns. After the war, he started a shoe repair shop at Newport, which is what Jim grew up with. James O. died in 2002.

The younger Wheeler followed his father’s footsteps into the military, although he aimed for a different branch.

Jim D. Wheeler spent four years in the Air Force, worked six years for Safeway in Nebraska and then opened the present shop in Batesville in September 1972.

He and his wife Cathy raised two children, Jeffrey Wheeler and Michelle Lively, and became grandparents to five grandchildren, Nikko Wheeler, Thaylan Bowman, Blaire Lively, Chris Thorne and Devin Thorne. He and Cathy were married 52 years when she died last August.

Wheeler is also a retired pastor serving Cushman United Methodist Church and Cornerstone UMC at Pleasant Plains.

“We Have No Phone, Just Good Service” is the slogan at Wheeler Boot and Shoe Repair.

The wooden and glass door looks like it might predate Wheeler’s ownership - the tarnished metal doorknob is comparable to one you might find at an antique store.

Upon walking in, the first thing that hits you is the aroma of leather, machine oil, grease and maybe a little tobacco. Between the door and the aroma, I can see why my friend compared it to the Harry Potter wand shop.

Wheeler himself is silver-haired, tall, slender build, wearing jeans, a plaid button-up Western shirt and, of course, leather cowboy boots. To the right is a rack of at least 50 various leather boots and shoes, all abandoned by their owners and now for sale. On the left wall hang custom leather belts and shoelaces next to a display of shoe polish, shoe insoles, shoe trees, leather dye and more. When I called upon Mr. Wheeler the first time, I even saw a Western saddle sitting on the cement floor in front of the cash register.

“How many pairs of shoes do you think are in here?” I asked, grinning. “Three hundred?” I ventured.

“Probably. Might be more than that,” Wheeler replied.

He does custom leather work, including gun holsters, knife sheaths, some saddlework, and “just whatever they ask.”

Wheeler said he has even made clown shoes and a pair of dog boots.

Wheeler recalled that one time a gentleman came in when he had only been open three or four months, and Wheeler told him that if he stayed a year he’ll have “made it.”

The man returned a year later, and although Wheeler did not remember his name, he recognized him. The man explained it had been a year since he told him that. Wheeler was still in business!

Nearly 45 years later, Wheeler is still going strong. He said customers should not worry about him retiring - he will be working as long as his good health will let him, and he still enjoys it.

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