For people with worn-out shoes, repairman is the heeler

There’s no business like shoe business for Matthew Missirian.

The owner of Cactus Boot and Shoe Repair has about 200 pairs of refurbished shoes and boots stacked around his small shop at 5000 W. Charleston Blvd., along with an assortment of mended handbags and leather jackets.

One woman comes in with a broken zipper on her knee-high platform boots. Missirian moves the job to priority status, knowing she needs them for work that night.

“She’s a club dancer,” he said. “We get people from all walks of life. Everybody wears shoes.”

Another woman needs stitching on her tennis shoes — a $5 job while she waits. He’ll take the elastic out of one customer’s shoes that are cutting off circulation in her feet. An attorney brings in a pair of dress shoes with a hole in the sole.

Missirian restored a 1950s pair of Justin cowboy boots. His biggest boot business comes from policemen, firefighters and bikers who typically pay $55 and up for new soles and heels, depending on material. His base labor rate is about $60 an hour.

Missirian, a stocky man with a full beard showing touches of gray, carries on a centuries-old craft handed down by his father, an immigrant from Lebanon who learned to make and repair shoes from his father.

He worked at his father’s shoe-repair shops in California and Texas before buying Cactus Boot and Shoe Repair in 1994. The business has less than $500,000 in estimated annual revenue, according to a company profile from manta.com.

Question: How did you get into the shoe repair business?

Answer: My dad had four shops in Riverside (Calif.) and he took me to the stores since I was 7 or 8. I made the mistake of asking him for money when I was 13 and he pulled out a key to the store by the university and gave it to me. I worked the counter, the register, polished shoes and put them away. I was his only son and had to carry on the name.

Question: Don’t most people throw their old shoes away when they’re shot and buy a new pair? Isn’t shoe repair a dying business?

Answer: I’ve been in it since I was a little kid. Even when my dad was in it, they said it was going by the wayside. It’s not that the business isn’t there. Nobody’s getting into the trade. There’s only one college I know of — Oklahoma State University — for teaching how to make Western boots and saddles and orthopedic shoes.

During World War II, more schools were teaching it because it was more of a necessity. The U.S. Army bought all of its boots domestically. Now those boots are from China. During the 1960s and ’70s, my dad said they lost business because teenagers weren’t wearing repairable shoes. Everybody wore tennis shoes, even to church.

Question: Where do you find employees who have the skill to repair boots and shoes?

Answer: Usually they’ve learned from somebody or worked in the business somewhere. Just find people with aptitude to work with their hands. It takes about a year to be productive and it takes about two to three years to master the repair craft. My dad would train them.

I’ve got one employee, George. We met in California and he came out here with me. We worked together at a franchise in Los Angeles. The owner didn’t know the business and went bankrupt. You’ve got to be shrewd. Like buying leather — you can buy good leather for $100 or you can buy bad leather for $100.

Question: In this age of throwaway products, how do you know whether a shoe or boot is worth repairing?

Answer: If I can repair shoes, I’ll let the customer know. When the cost is more than the new shoe, I’ll tell them. Sometimes they still do the repair.

Question: Does a bad economy help or hurt your business?

Answer: Kind of both. When the economy is good, I’d get three to five pairs of Red Wings or Wolverine work boots a day from plumbers and drywallers and construction workers. We’re not seeing that because they’re not building houses. Now I get maybe three to five pairs a week. I lose the big-money jobs, but I get more volume with lesser-priced jobs. I work harder in a down economy for the same money. It just changes. In a down economy, more people keep what they have. In a good economy, they’re buying more expensive shoes.

Question: What are your daily challenges?

Answer: Trying to get everything done. Answering the phone, the register, my work. It was a little easier when my mom was here working the register. She got sick, but she’s getting better. I’ve just got to juggle everything at home with the kids. I’m usually here nine or 10 hours a day.

Question: How has the shoe business changed?

Answer: When people go to buy a shoe, there’s no more service. The salesman used to sit down with you and measure your foot. I guarantee your size will change as you get older, as you gain weight. Women’s shoe sizes change when they have children. Now people just go through the (shoe) boxes until they find a pair that fits.

Contact reporter Hubble Smith at hsmith@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0491.

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