By Ali Webb
When I meet Peter Callea, I’m guilty, sickly guilty. I’m guilty because I haven’t stepped foot into a cobbler’s store in years – I can’t work out if it’s because I chuck my shoes out once they’re done or if my shoes are too cheap to have repaired. Either way, I instantly regret my poor choice in shoes the minute I step into his shoe repairs store.
I’ve brought in a pair of my husband’s Birkenstock clogs that he wears as a chef. They are covered in oil and bits of food. A decade ago, my husband would wear his chef clogs right down to the core, they would last him two, maybe three years. Now they are lucky to last through a whole year, with the prices of his clogs increasing as the quality decreases.
When I arrive, a gentle buzzer rings and Peter comes out from behind a brown curtain next to the veneered wood paneled wall. He stands proudly behind his counter, wearing a neat tradesman’s apron, his white hair slightly wild. He doesn’t say anything, just nods his head at me.
The shelves behind him are stocked full of boxes of shoelaces in multiple colours, Nugget shoe polish in all sorts of tones, brushes, pieces of leather, rivets, eyelets and small tools. Peter doesn’t seem very sure of me but when I pop the clogs on the counter he looks them over and ‘tsks’.
“They don’t make them like they used to. It’s the glue, it doesn’t last.”
It’s true, nothing these days is made the way it used to be. I’m a pathetic time-poor sufferer of the online shopping syndrome, the mass manufactured products that are showcased in emails sent to you at the perfect time once your kid is asleep offering sweet incentives like ‘free shipping’. Why leave the house when someone can bring it to your home for free?
For the last 58 years, Peter has been fixing and mending shoes in his Somerville Road store. He wasn’t always a cobbler, he began his training at the age of 13 as an apprentice in a shoe making factory in Southern Italy where he watched shoes being made for the first few years until he moved to another factory where he was given the opportunity to create. He went on to migrate to Melbourne and worked first at a local tannery in Richmond, then at the Olympic Tyre Factory where he cleaned tyre rims and then a small workshop behind the now Footscray Arts Centre.
“I went to Footscray, along the river, where there were a lot of small factories near the bridge. I saw there was a door open at one of them and I could see a man inside doing leather work. I went in and said I was looking for a job and he asked me if I had worked in a leather factory before. I started the next day. 18 months later I started my own business here.”
When he first opened his store in 1958, business was thriving. The small shopping strip in the Kingsville pocket of Somerville Road featured four butchers, a grocery, gift shop, flower shop and a petrol station.
“Fifty-eight years ago I would start at 6 o’clock in the morning and finish around 7 o’clock in the evening. Back then I would repair 65-70 pairs of shoes a day, this is the time when people would only have one or two pairs of shoes each. Today, I will go for days where no one comes in.
“My profession is the shoemaker. Start from nothing, prepare the leather and build the shoe. Years ago I would put a pair of shoes that I had made in the window and they would be sold that day. Now, no one buys handmade shoes like we used to make. In the beginning I made shoes here in my store but a few years ago there was a fire in my workshop and I lost all my tools. At my age, it doesn’t pay to replace everything, so I stopped making shoes.
“Young people don’t want to learn the trade – you can’t learn the trade in 24 hours – and the old shoemakers will pass away. Soon there will be no one who knows how to repair shoes.”
Peter’s wife Narina pops out to see who her husband is talking to and I introduce myself. Narina invites me to look at the workshop behind the curtain. It smells like leather in the crispest sense. The machines are old and cared for, bathing in natural dusty light sneaking in past the window signage.
As I leave, Peter hands me half of a perforated swing tag. I watch him tie the other half to my husband’s shoe, his hands are old and you can see they have been his lifelong tools. Heading towards the door, I notice a brilliant brown leather brogue amongst a whole wall of shoes showing similar swing tags. I pick it up and comment on how nice it is, but quickly I can see the layer of dust sitting on the toe.
“The problem is, people drop off their shoes with promises to come back, and they never do. I do the work, sometimes very quickly, and I wait and I wait for the owner to return. Most people now don’t come back.”
I place my swing tag in my wallet, next to the receipts for the dry cleaner and the picture framer with a promise I will return.
And I do. After spending $200 on a pair of leather clogs, what’s $20 to have them fixed and looking brand spanking new again? It’s not about the $20 though, is it? It’s about so much more: speaking to someone in a shop who cares about your shoes, understanding an old school trade, enjoying stories of the past, understanding where your item comes from and most of all watching someone really love what they do and have done for over half a century.
I’ve got another pair of shoes ready for a new sole. This time I’m taking my son with me and I’m hoping Peter can show him how real shoes are made. What a treat.
Cobbler Peter Callea can be found at 220 Somerville Road, Kingsville.
Discover more local stories by Ali Webb at www.houseofwebb.blogspot.com