A lost art: Hampton cobbler keeps craft alive

Return to Hampton Business History Table of Contents

By Susan Morse

Portsmouth Herald, August 3, 2003

[The following article is courtesy of the Hampton Union and Seacoast Online.]

HAMPTON - There's no shortage of shoes and feet, yet cobblers appear to be going the way of the dinosaur, an archaic throwback to the days of TV and radio repair.

Many are closing shop, usually to retire, and no one is coming in to take their place, say Mark and Elmira Cancelada who, as the owners of a new shoe repair store in Hampton, are among the exceptions to the rule.

Three area shoe repairs have closed in the last eight years, the couple say. Competition for the Canceladas' The Hammer & The Last Shoe Repair is limited to one store each in Portsmouth, Dover and Newburyport, Mass. Of those shops, two of the owners are poised to retire.

Elmira Cancelada, who runs the business while Mark repairs the shoes, believes the shortage of new cobblers is due to the job's lackluster image, the amount of skill required to pursue the craft, and the investment needed for the equipment. Once going, the business never does turn the kind of profit many young men and women are looking for when choosing a career.

"We'll never die of hunger," she says. "We'll never make a whole lot of money."

At 38, Mark Cancelada, is considered very junior in the company of cobblers.

"I'm still wet behind the ears for these guys," he says.

Cancelada works while he talks, wearing the black cobbler's apron while he glues a new sole onto a pair of Birkenstocks. The cobbler's motto, "Save Your Soles" is emblazoned across the front of the new store.

In back where Mark works are shelves of shoes, at least five impressive-looking pieces of equipment, an old wooden work bench with small drawers, spools indescribable identity everywhere.

Mark claims that since Elmira was laid off from her job as a systems analyst and joined him in the business, the shop has gotten more organized.

"I have a hard time looking beyond the counter," he says.

He once repaired a pair of Ostrich boots. The customer told him that his dog had chewed off the tops.

Other boots in the shop, worn through in places, have been patched to look new.

Sometimes Mark tells customers that their shoe or boot is too far gone to repair.

He also repairs pocketbooks, belts and bags of all kinds. He repairs about an equal amount of men's and women's shoes, but shoes have changed since he started.

Fifteen years ago, Mark says, he was replacing the heel on women's high-heeled shoes with what is called a dowel lift, at a rate of 12 to 15 a day. Now he does about 12 a week.

Shoe-making has changed from being a thriving New England industry in the 19th century to becoming an import.

Elmira, who is from St. Petersburg, Russia, says that shoes are not seen here as a status symbol, as they are in Europe, but as a commodity to be worn until they are worn down and then thrown away.

Shoes say a lot about a person, says Elmira, who claims she can usually guess a person's profession and sometimes their character by the wear marks on the shoes to be repaired.

The Canceladas have owned The Hammer & The Last for 11 years. They first started the business in 1992 when they bought the former Stratham Shoe Repair in Stratham Plaza. Five years ago, The Hammer & The Last opened on Water Street in downtown Exeter. They had to leave that shop, the couple say, when the building was sold. In its place is now a gift store.

Earlier this year, they opened their shop on Lafayette Road, across the street from the Galley Hatch Restaurant. They're now in a storefront where a laundry used to be, behind a Chinese takeout restaurant. The rent is 60 percent less than what they were paying in Exeter, they say.

They don't get the heavy foot traffic they had on Water Street. Mark misses this and says it's bad for business, but not because of a lack of customers.

A new generation, he says, needs to be educated about getting shoes repaired. Phillips Exeter Academy students, intrigued by the equipment, used to stop in and ask questions. Now, that's lacking.

"The biggest thing is educating customers," Mark says. "There's a generation out there who have no idea that cobblers exist."

Mark, who is from Missouri, got started in the business at the age of 22 after seeing an ad in the newspaper in 1987 for an assistant at Downeast Instant Shoe Repair at the Newington Mall.

"Will train," the ad said.

"It wasn't intentional," Mark said of becoming a cobbler. "I enjoy it. I just like what I'm doing. It's not monotonous, it's never the same. Every shoe, there's something different about it."

The Hammer & The Last has retained most of its former customers and added new ones, though it's taken awhile to build the business back up again.

Summer is the slowest season, Mark says. He puts in 40 -to 50 hours a week. During the fall when business picks up, he's at the shop 60 to 70 hours a week.

The shop is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Fridays, and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturdays.