Repairing Old Soles: Rethinking What We Throw Away

My husband and I were killing time in a thrift store in Seattle last January when I found myself looking in the shoe section of the store. I honestly wasn’t sure what I was doing there. I’ve never found quality used shoes in my size, and our suitcases were already maxed with all that we were taking with us to start our new lives in S. Korea. Nevertheless, the surprise snowfall in Seattle reminded me that my feet were not prepared for winter in my shoes made only of heavy cloth and rubber soles. Two weeks earlier, I had thrown-away my only winter-appropriate shoes because they had also doubled as my work shoes for the past year. Mud, chicken manure, and a recent slaughter had rendered them unsalvageable.

I was debating over a pair of black boots a half-size too small when I saw them: Chestnut brown, faux leather boots that came up a few inches above my ankle. They even had a slight graduated heel that ensured I wouldn’t tower over my husband. Eagerly, I took them off the shelf to examine the size label, which was no longer readable. I slipped them on while trying not to get my hopes up. They were a perfect fit. A couple of laps around the store revealed that they were comfortable to walk in – all this, and without an ounce of suede! I wasn’t wild about the western-inspired fringe on the sides, but if I choose to tuck my jeans into them, I could always spin it more bohemian than country, depending on what I wore. At the counter, my luck only improved when I was informed of the half-priced sale on shoes and accessories. I paid $9.50 for my new-used boots.

I wore the boots each day last winter, well into spring. When I was finally able to break out my flip-flops, I took a good, hard look at my boots. Although the inside and tops of the shoe had held up nicely, one glance at the soles told me that my boots didn’t have much time left. I had worn the black rubber heels down to the white plastic – they made an irritating “click, click” when I walked. I would have to find a way to repair my beloved boots, or replace them.

The tendency with cheap goods is to cherish them only as much as you paid for them: less. Wear them until they get a broken heal or scuffed, then toss them and go shopping again.*  The idea that tossing cheap goods is acceptable is what economy thrives on.  But this idea is also what landfills thrive on, too, and with no sign of slowing down. Each American creates roughly 4.43 pounds of trash per day, which translates to 250 million tons per year. Much of this trash appears in landfills, which are responsible for many damages to the environment and our health – especially for those living nearby that are subjected to breathing the toxic fumes. My thoughts went to my beloved boots lying mismatched in a field covered with cheap broken plastic toys, Styrofoam egg cartons, cell phones that were brand-new just two months before, and toxic sludge. I carefully placed my boots in the back of my closet, promising myself that I would find a way to repair them when the weather cooled again.

Fall snuck up on me this year, and I was quickly reminded of my need for the boots waiting patiently in the back of my closet. I pulled them out and looked them over again, running my fingers over the non-existent heels, the faux-leather ragged around the space where they should have been. Despite the common shoe repair shops seen on the street – I have seen one in nearly each neighborhood (rich and poor) that I have visited – it was doubtful they could be fixed. I considered for a moment all of the shoes in the landfill for which I was responsible, shoes purchased from a clearance rack at Target or Payless with my girlfriends over the years. I must have purchased a couple dozen in college. I only have one pair now from these places, an ill-fitting pair of heels – the only dress shoes I brought to Korea – I bought four years ago that have lasted this long only because they are uncomfortable and I try to avoid situations that would have me wear them.

I arrived at the little shoe repair shop around 4:45 in the afternoon. I use the term “shop” loosely. It was a tiny structure with frosty glass sliding doors, not much bigger than my bathroom. I poked my head in the doorway and held out my boots while asking a phrase I had learned five minutes before. “Gocheo Chuseyo?” (Can you repair these, please?) I fished out the small post-it that my Korean friend had written in Hangul explaining that the heels needed to be repaired. A middle-aged man sitting in the corner nodded and beckoned impatiently for me to come inside. He took my shoes and inspected them, his face all business. I watched his eyes widen as they fell on the soles of my boots. He gave a slow, exaggerated breath through his mouth and shook his head in what I understood signified a bleak chance of repair.  In the opposite corner sat a rather friendly man who motioned for me to sit on the bench, and took my post-it. He seemed impressed at the Korean, although I told him that I hadn’t written the note. While the cobbler assessed my boots, the happy man asked me questions about where I was from in broken English. I never saw him do any work during the length of time that I was there, but I gathered from the rows of keys lining the walls that he must be the key cutter. He handed my post-it (its message now redundant) to the cobbler who skimmed the note and threw it away as he took my boots to a little sanding machine outside.  When he returned, the straggly leather around the heels was smooth, along with the white plastic.

It was now time for the real work to begin. What I had first deemed as an unorganized mess of tools and shoe parts slowly took on the form of a methodical workspace. The cobbler worked deftly from his seat in the corner, reaching left to pull out a little container of rubber heels, reaching right to grab a few nails, turning to the wall behind him to grab his sharp cutting tool hanging on the wall.  He worked on my shoes for a solid 40 minutes, stopping only to let coats of glue become tacky. During this time, he had a steady stream of customers, one of which he turned down only because his sewing would not have been effective where the shoe was torn.

The strength that goes into shoe repair was unforeseen. I watched as he secured the glued rubber heels with two nails each, four powerful blows followed by sharp twists of the pliers. Next, a sharpened paint chipper was used to hand-cut the heels to fit seamlessly around the base of my boots. I wondered at how he could cut a delicate curvature into the heel even as his face reddened and his arms shook from the labor. Afterwards, it was off to the sanding machine again for a final buffing, then a few more dabs of glue and some pulls and prods to test how the boots fared. When he was satisfied with his work, he wrapped a piece of linen around his right hand and began polishing the boots, dipping the cloth in a tin of red wax every so often.

He nodded at me and handed me my boots to look over. Given the appearance of the shoes before, he had gone far beyond anything I had expected. I thanked him for his work and asked him the price in Korean. What he said, I did not catch, so I handed him 20,000 won (roughly $20), hoping that I was close. He laughed and handed the money back, while holding up five fingers. I handed him the five dollars with a deep bow, knowing that a tip would have offended him.

I could have justified spending money on an eco-friendly pair of shoes guaranteed to last several years. Or bought a recycled pair of shoes in which the soles are made of cork. Or visited another thrift store in hopes of scoring another pair of boots to last another winter.  These companies all hold their place of importance in our society. But while I don’t mind supporting companies with good values that supply good jobs, I still would have been consuming more, not less.

I will wear my boots until they absolutely can’t be worn anymore. When that time comes, I will look for a life-promoting way to dispose of them and instead of gracing the clearance aisles of big-box stores, I will research and support an earth-conscious shoe company. Until then, “repaired” is the new cheap shoe.

Interested in getting your shoes repaired but aren’t sure where to look? Chances are a long-established, independently-owned shoe store in your community has a cobbler on staff.  If locating one still proves difficult and internet searches are fruitless, check the yellow pages (yes break-out the phone book) for a possible cobbler listing. 

*Even if I had wanted go shoe-shopping, the stores in Korea do not carry my size 9 shoes. In fact, sometime in my first few weeks in Korea I asked a sales woman if she had a particular dress shoe in my size (265 in Korea). Her eyes grew wide and she shook her head politely while saying that I had “man-feet.”

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About continuethislabor

Hi I'm Tera. I'm interested in how flavors work together and how we can work together to be responsible Earth citizens. Currently I teach English in S. Korea with my husband, but someday we will own a small organic farm. There, we will grow vegetables, raise chickens and goats, and play Catan in our little cottage while drinking good coffee.

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