- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 1, 2004

Y ou are walking down the city street, poised and confident, the $400 Prada suede pumps purchased just last week — your “hire me now” shoes — providing an aura of invincibility.

And that is the moment when you step right into a pothole. With a snap, you lose a heel, and a shot at that job.

Greg Brown can save the day, and, perhaps more important, those expensive shoes. Just give him a few hours to work his magic.

Mr. Brown is the master specialist at Fortuna’s, a shoe and luggage repair shop located on Woodmont Avenue in Bethesda. Since 1979, he has been replacing broken heels, worn-out soles and handbag straps for thousands of customers unwilling to part with a prized possession that has seen better times.

“We could have upwards of 100 pairs of shoes here, plus all the purses and luggage,” Mr. Brown says, as he handles an old pair of Gucci flats. “There’s always something to do.”

On this day Mr. Brown, dressed in jeans with a stained white apron, will try to re-sole about 15 pairs of shoes, and tackle a broken luggage strap or two. When it comes to shoes, he has a routine. He begins by placing the shoe upside down on a holder known as a shoelast. Then, he squirts some thinning liquid on the sole of the shoe. The liquid seeps through the leather, loosening the glue on the shoe and allowing the sole to be pried off with a pair of pliers.

After he pulls the sole off, he places the bottom of the shoe onto a ultra-high-powered sander, removing the dried glue but also keeping the shoe bottom rough to allow new glue to stick. The sander also makes it easier to remove stitching left over from the old sole.

Replacing the worn sole is a bit trickier. Some shoes require specially ordered leather or rubber, but most only need the high-quality leather that the shop has on hand. Mr. Brown will cut and shape the sole to fit the shoe, then attach it with a special glue. He then will put the shoes upside down in a special press to make sure the soles are on firmly. In some instances, he will put an extra layer of padding or a plate between the shoe and the sole.

After the glue dries, Mr. Brown will either stitch the sole to the shoe using a special sewing machine or nail the sole to the shoe using a special machine and small nails.

Fixing broken heels can be done more quickly, provided that the shoe is not damaged. Mr. Brown simply removes the broken part, sands down the shoe and places on a new heel using a special glue.

A repair usually takes a day or two, but Mr. Brown can fix shoes quickly while customers wait. During a training stint in England in the 1970s, Mr. Brown learned that Europeans often insist on quick repairs because they walk nearly everywhere.

Mr. Brown, who turned 43 this week, began working at Fortuna’s while he was in a trade school in the 1970s. After serving in the Marines, he came back to the shop one day for a friendly visit, and was immediately put to work by J.W. Fortuna, the shop’s owner at the time and father-in-law of the current owner, Terry Fortuna.

“[Mr. Brown] came in and my father-in-law handed him an apron and said ‘get to work,’” Ms. Fortuna recalls.

The Fortunas saw that Mr. Brown had ability, and he has shown it in the many awards that adorn the shop, including the prestigious Silver Cup . He won most of the awards after he entered competitions in which judges hand contestants a beat-up shoe, and examine their ability to restore the shoe to its original condition.

Mr. Brown says he will try to fix almost anything that customers drop off, but some shoes are simply beyond hope.

“If the customer really loves the shoe, I’ll tell them I’ll do what I can do, but that there’s no way to know if I can make it look really nice,” he says.

Mr. Brown can also dye fabric and restore color to shoes, handbags and luggage. His latest projects have included restoring the color to a red alligator-skin bag and refurbishing a purse made from ostrich skin.

Sometimes, Mr. Brown and Ms. Fortuna must compromise with customers. Recently, a woman came in with a broken heel on a shoe with a one-of-a-kind colored pattern. Ms. Fortuna told her that the heel could not be fixed, but that they would gladly put on a new heel with a different design.

It is this kind of service that has allowed Fortuna’s to develop a good reputation and loyal base of customers, many of whom don’t even live in the Washington area. The shop gets about 15 percent of its business from the Internet, and accepts shoes, luggage and purses from all over the United States. Most of the shoes and luggage it fixes have special meaning to the customer or are expensive. (It’s not always cost-effective to repair something that can be bought new for $30.)

Fortuna’s latest challenge is a pricey red handbag that had been mangled after the owner accidentally drove over it.

“We’ll have to see what we can do,” Ms. Fortuna says, smiling at Mr. Brown.

Mr. Brown enjoys the work, and is considering opening his own shop, as several of his predecessors at Fortuna’s have done.

“When you know exactly what goes on here, you feel comfortable,” he says.

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