(We recently visited the Olvera shoe repair shop on Boca Chica Blvd. and saw one of only two cobblers left in the city. At Olvera's, it appears that the shop may close in the near future. The shoe repair shop on E. 14th Street is closed half the time because the cobbler there is not in good health. The Olveras no longer are associated with the shop and only the name remains. What these skilled workmen practice is a dying art. We republish this post as a tribute to their craft.)
By Juan Montoya
Hidden away in a catacomb of office compartments, at the end of a long, dark corridor, is a cluttered, fan-cooled den decorated in a wall-to-wall pattern of stacked footwear that would excite a foot fetishist.
When it is cold outside, a small heater provides the only warmth there. When hot, a small window fan struggles to circulate the thermal heat that collects with the smell of tannin and dyes.
And at the farthest reach of the small shop, a stooped Lazaro Ortiz wields a wicked-looking - and dangerously sharp - curved-blade knife as he trims through a stiff leather boot sole as easily as would a pirate with his cutlass slicing through a green banana.
He slips the worn Wingtip over the metal shoe tree and slices away a portion of the leather that extrudes past the natural curve of the sole. With a quick, deft motion, the offending strip flies off and joins the pile of hard leather pieces on the dirty concrete floor.
The shop is hot, and while outside a welcome rainstorm batters a drought-parched landscape, inside the sweltering heat combines with the stifling dyes and leather-softening chemicals of the shoe trade to keep the waiting customers at a low stew while they wait their turn to recycle their battered footwear.
Ortiz, who has renewed the soles and heels of his clients for more than 40 years, talks to a customer as he slips off the shoe and reaches for its mate.
“Nothing much has changed in the shoe repair business,” he comments in Spanish. “The customers still want to pay the same, but the materials are of poorer quality and cost more. Los costos suben, pero el precio baja.”
Ortiz and his partner shoe repairman Juan Jose Arias - who’s been in the business for another 50 years - work as a team. Since Arias is a relative of owner Miguel Olvera Arias, he tends to the record-keeping, billing, and works the cash register, a cigar box where the bills and coins share the same space in the single compartment.
“The Olvera family has had this business since 1926, when it was on Washington Street,” said Arias. “It’s been five years since we moved over here. Lazaro there has worked with us all that time. He can actually design a customized pair of boots from scratch if you ask him.”
“Over here” is the office complex across Wal-Mart on Boca Chica Blvd. that once housed Graham Insurance and Real Estate. Next to the shoe repair shop is a barbershop, On the other side of the shop is a car insurance office that features compact red cars for its advertising.
Ortiz, a wry, witty conversationalist alternately works the electric-motor buffer and the knives and brushes as he instructs a listener on the different customers he has served over the years.
“I’d say that about 80 percent of the shoes that aren’t claimed belong to women,” he said. “They come in and want them done right away. Then, months after the work has been done, we call them and they always say they’ll be by for them and they never come. Maybe it’s because women have a lot of shoes and men only have one or two pairs. Look around you, our shelves are full of unclaimed women shoes.”
In the next cubbyhole office, Arias and a customer poke through the walls filled with repaired shoes. They discard pair after pair until the customer recognizes the shoes, a pair of black woman’s dress shoes with thin leather strips.
“Estos son, mi amor?” he asks his wife standing by the door.
“Si,” she answers, wiping her makeup and sweat from her dripping double chin. “Ya vamonos.”
Ortiz turns knowingly toward his interviewer and smiles as he says, “No le dije?”