In a throw-away world, Jim McDaniel of Grafton carries on his grandfather’s craft and makes shoes that last 30 years
When Jim McDaniel sits behind the Sutton Landis shoe repair machine at Heim’s Shoe Store in Grafton — the same one his grandfather Arthur Heim used when he opened the shop in 1946 — he feels at home.
“I learned most of what I do by watching him, asking questions,” McDaniel said. “He was patient, which helped a lot.”
McDaniel, 50, has spent the past 30 years cobbling shoes and boots, and repairing just about anything else made from leather with his mother, Arlene McDaniel.
He’s always enjoyed working with his hands, whether it’s with wood, cars or leather.
In a world of throw-away shoes, repair shops are rare. McDaniel is one of the only cobblers left in the area.
“We don’t have the foot traffic that places like New York and Chicago do,” he said. “We’ve done something right over the years to get people to come back.
“The fact that we own our own building is huge.
“For someone to start a shoe repair or other business now, I wouldn’t.”
Some people wear a pair of running shoes for a few months and get rid of them. That’s not the kind of shoes the shop fixes.
“We’re here for people who have owned a nice pair of dress shoes for 20, 30 years and don’t want to go out and buy another pair,” McDaniel said. “A shoe gets broken in and it feels right on their foot. To them, the shoes they have are special and we will treat them that way.”
He estimates the shop fixes about 75 items per week, or more than 100,000 repairs over his career at the shop on Bridge Street.
A typical sole or heel replacement will cost about $40, while rips range from $5 to $10, depending on how much work has to be done.
“Our prices are pretty affordable and we could raise them if we wanted to, but we’re in a position where that’s not as important as having people come back,” McDaniel said.
One of the most popular items the store repairs are women’s fashion boots, McDaniel said.
The shop fixes more than just shoes and boots though, repairing anything from awnings and canvas tarps to motorcycle saddle bags and gun holsters.
“An older gentleman came in with a gun case this year that had been left in a linen closet for more than 50 years with the pistol in it. It basically fell apart when you touched it,” McDaniel said. “We stitched it back up for him and got it back to working order.”
A high-quality pair of leather work boots will last a year or two, McDaniel said, while dress shoes can last for a few decades.
“Some guys wear their work boots every day and they’ll only last for so long, even with repairs,” he said.
It’s worth it to fix shoes or boots that sometimes cost several hundred dollars.
“You might only get a few more months out of it, but why get rid of that investment if you can do something about it?” McDaniel asked. “However, if someone buys a pair of boots for $40, it doesn’t pay to resole it because it would be more than the cost.”
When a company has been around nearly 70 years, it almost goes without saying that Heim’s has an excellent reputation in the area.
Allen Edmonds Co. in Port Washington, for example, sometimes asks the shop to re-sole dress shoes that it doesn’t have time to repair.
“Their turn around time is about 3 to 4 weeks and that’s too long for some people,” he said. “We usually take about 2 or 3 days. They’ve been very nice in sending customers to us.”
Although McDaniel has technically been employed since 1985, he has been around the business his entire life.
“When I was in school and had a day off, my mom would bring me in and I would do little things like vacuum,” he said.
The way shoes have been made over the years has changed and McDaniel has adapted to it.
“When my grandfather was growing up, people had shoes repaired all the time,” he said. “With all the shoe companies now, people have 10, 15 pairs of shoes and they just don’t get them repaired as often.”
In his spare time, he helps coach volleyball at St. Joseph Parish School in Grafton, where his daughter Natalie is a seventh-grader.
He allows himself one week off a year in July to visit his in-laws in South Carolina.
Those interested in getting into the repair business don’t have many options these days. There are very few schools that offer leather repair classes.
“Most people learn from their father or grandfather and just keep the business going,” he said. “I’ve seen a lot of older folks in the last 10 to 15 years who aren’t doing it anymore and nobody wants to take it over.”
With only two full-time employees, McDaniel works long days, staying open selling shoes until 9 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
While he doesn’t plan on retiring any time soon, McDaniel realizes the future of the shop is uncertain.
“My daughter comes in and helps out when she can, but we don’t want to put a decision in her head,” he said. “If she comes to us some day and says she wants to do more, that’s fine. But we don’t want to put anything on her.”
The long days sometimes take a toll on McDaniel, but he keeps it all in perspective.
“If you look not at the immediate future, but beyond what the bad day is and get through that, then it’s easy,” he said. “We’re fortunate that my grandfather thought ahead when he built this place. I just took over and kept going what he started.”