Story and Photos by Art Petrosemolo
Cobbler Joe Montedoro trains grandson in the shoe repair craft
SHREWSBURY – Cobbler Joe Montedoro says his grandson has good hands for the trade. Montedoro should know, he has been repairing shoes and boots for more than 70 years.
Though 82, don’t look for Montedoro to retire soon. However, he is training his grandson Justin Ward to take over the business and continue a multi-generation craft when the time comes.
A Bradley Beach native, Montedoro first worked in his dad’s Main Street shop when he was 8 years old. Montedoro had two brothers and two sisters and his dad trained them all in the cobbler’s art. They helped out as needed throughout school years. “We all learned the business,” Joe says, “but I was the only one who made it my business.”
Montedoro’s dad who passed away in 1971 called his shop The White Cat and he worked hard enough to support several branches of the family during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Joe recalls the business during World War II as a time when rationing meant customers had to repair, not replace shoes. “We were so busy that my dad had huge boxes marked with the days of the week. They were filled with shoes to repair for that day. It was crazy as we were working on hundreds of pairs a week.”
Now, with the economy sluggish after the recession, grandfather and grandson see a little of that willingness to repair rather than replace shoes today. They have seen women bringing in good shoes covered with dust and guess they are shopping in their closet for expensive, quality shoes bought in past years rather than buying new.
For 18-year-old Ward, the son of Joe’s second daughter Carla, it is all about practice and more practice under the watchful eye of his grandfather. “I started to come to the shop at age 8 or 9,” Ward says, “to shine shoes and help anyway I could.” Only recently, with Montedoro’s encouragement, has Ward begun to look ahead to when he can take over the business and carry on the tradition.
“I always had my eye on Justin. He had the hands to work with the leather and he could actually use the machines at age 12. But that doesn’t mean he still doesn’t have a lot to learn,” Montedoro says with a grin.
The cobbler business is primarily men’s shoes as men have fewer shoes than women. “Men, working in business, need good shoes – brands like Alden or Allen Edmonds that can cost upwards of $1,200 – $2,000. If you pay that much for your shoes,” Montedoro smiles, “spending close to $100 for heels, soles, heel plates etc. is well worth it.”
Both Montedoro and Ward see shoes that come into the shop for repair that have to be thrown away. “It can be difficult,” Ward says, “to tell a woman that she has walked completely through heels and support on a $1,200 pair of Ferragamo shoes and ruined the metal post in the heel. We say “do you want us to throw them away or do you want to wear them until they fall apart?”
Both cobblers say that if a woman starts hearing a click from the heel post support when they walk, it’s time to get the shoes repaired.
Montedoro has been at his Shrewsbury Cobbler Shop on Broad Street since 1986. He worked with a partner, Vito Maura, who opened the location for several years and eventually took it over for a while. Montedoro ran the Allenhurst shop that his dad opened for 25 years from the 1950s-’70s.
“We were busy,” Montedoro says, “and even sharpened skates for kids who used them on the lakes and ponds. There were no artificial ice rinks around at the time. And to literally sharpen my skills,” he continues, “I spent time one day in Madison Square Garden with the man who did skates for the New York Rangers. He taught me a lot.”
But in 1976, Montedoro says, “I was ‘up to here’ with shoes and wanted to try something else.” For a few years, he worked as a bartender, chef, and musician while still keeping his hands, literally, in the shoe repair business part time. But the call of the leather was too much and he partnered with Mauro at the Shrewsbury shop.
Montedoro, as expected, has seen every business cycle that you can imagine and expects his grandson will too. “It’s still all about location, he says. “Monmouth County and this area especially, has always been good for shoe repair. People here own good shoes and they want to maintain them. It’s been good for me and it will be good for my grandson in the years ahead.”
There are just a few master cobblers like Montedoro in the area. “Many times,” Ward says, “we have people bring in shoes that have been repaired incorrectly at (other) locations for us to fix.” He recalls a woman customer who had an expensive pair of boots dyed. “The shoes ended up being colored the wrong shade,” he smiles. “My grandfather had me spend hours with solvent removing the paint so we could color them correctly.”
It takes strong hands and a strong upper body to be a cobbler. Ward is learning how to remove soles from welted shoes with a sharp knife, steady hand and arm strength. “Good men’s shoes are welted shoes and take time to replace the soles correctly,” he says: “The sole has to be lifted from the welt with a knife and then the stitches cut, before new soles can be glued and re-stitched to the shoe on machines that are decades old.” The process for someone like Montedoro can take nearly an hour. For Ward, still in the learning process, it’s even longer.
These cobblers aren’t too shy to tell people that the shoes they bring in just aren’t worth repairing. “This family has been in the shoe repair business nearly 100 years,” Montedoro says, “and we always have been honest with the customer on what can be done and what should be done with their shoes.”
Looking ahead, Montedoro feels confident that Ward has what it takes to carry on the tradition. “He has good hands, a feel for the materials and how important it is to do a quality job the first time,” says Montedoro. “But he still has a lot to learn and that’s why I’m here. I don’t plan to retire… This is my life.”