Another 1000 Miles
Entering the shop, the rich smell of leather and shoe polish permeates the air and morning sunlight pours in through the front windows. The machinery is heavy and old, some of it dating back a century. Standing at the outsole stitching machine, Aaron Henry breathes new life into a pair of well-worn Wolverine 1000 Mile Boots, getting them ready for their next thousand miles.
As a cobbler at JD’s Shoe Repair in Portland, Oregon, Aaron’s favorite part of the job is the people with whom he works and the happy, friendly vibes of the shop, but aside from that, it’s a love of working with his hands that makes him love coming to work every day. For Aaron, his life-long hobby of working on old cars translated directly into his life working in shoe repair.
“They’re both enjoyable things to do with your hands,” he says. “I don’t feel stress when I’m lying under a car. That’s the same way I feel working on shoes.”
Whether it involves regluing sneakers, resoling old boots, adding new heels, or doing new stitch work on Western boots, if a piece of footwear can be fixed, Aaron and JD’s will do it. He says the clientele varies, from people who are trying to be economical by keeping their favorite sneakers going instead of throwing them away, to people who’ve done their research and want their boots to last a lifetime, to people working in the trades who use and abuse their footwear every day and just want to make it last. He loves that it’s a blend of time-tested techniques and inventive creativity.
The most satisfying thing, he says, is resoling a pair of beloved boots. “Those are very rewarding,” he says, “because you tear something down that looks rough, and then you put it back together with the new stitching and the new sole, all trimmed out. It looks really good, and the customers are usually really happy with it and feel like it’s a worthwhile investment.”
One of the big goals of JD’s is to break down the stereotype of the grumpy old guy behind the shoe repair counter. This shop is a new generation of an old trade.
“Our shop is the nicest people in shoe repair,” he says. “The average person is not going to know much about repair and exactly what needs to be done to their footwear, though there are definitely people who do. We’re not trying to make somebody feel unintelligent when they bring their stuff in and want it fixed but don’t know all the terms and lingo.”
Aaron and his coworkers often bond with their customers around the concept of extending the life of a pair of boots, keeping them in use rather than sending them to the landfill, and this comes down to quality workmanship, using quality parts and pieces, and a mindset of treating the work as an investment. He had the opportunity to work recently on a pair of treasured Wolverine 1000 Miles that had been around the block a time or two. After some 80 different hands touched the boots during their initial creation at the factory in Wynne, Arkansas, Aaron’s were the next hands in these boots’ journey.
“When these 1000 Miles came in, they had a worn-out leather full sole with a heel block and rubber heel,” he says. “The customer opted to replace it with a Vibram rubber sole. We took off the leather sole, stitched on the new Vibram sole after replacing all the cork in between the footbed and the outsole, and then we nailed the new heel on in place and trimmed it out. I’m pretty stoked to do that for the customer, because it looks really good. For the wintertime, it’s going to be a great investment to have that Vibram rubber sole.”
Extending the life of a pair of boots depends on extending the life of the shop equipment itself. “Some of the machines in the shop date back to the 1920s, the 1950s, the 1970s,” Aaron says. “When we need to get a part, a lot of it is really hard to find, so we tend to do a lot of the repairs ourselves. They all just do their job, and we keep them all going. That can be a job in itself.”
For a guy who loves working with his hands, it’s kind of a dream. Aaron’s forged his path into a life where he enjoys each and every day, a life where hard work doesn’t feel like work at all because it’s so rewarding.
“If you're enjoying each day, that's a great way to live life, just to enjoy the path that you're on,” he says. “There are obviously ups and downs, but I’m very fortunate to have a job where I work with my hands. I don't really have to deal with other stresses that most jobs have. The customers are all usually really nice. My coworkers are great. The shop's wonderful.”
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