By Angelique Jarvis-Simmons
What is a shoe cobbler? Some people hear the word ‘cobbler’ and think of a baked dessert with fruit. Or perhaps it makes people think of the cobble stone streets of Charleston. Maybe you have even heard the old saying “the cobbler’s children had no shoes…” This saying goes along with the profession of a shoe cobbler, and it originated in England. The saying implies that the cobbler is too busy fixing shoes for his customers and has no time for his own family’s shoes.
The term, like the profession, is almost extinct this day and age. But Woodruff was had its very own shoe cobbler.
From 1985 to 2005, Foster’s Shoe Shop, owned by William Foster, occupied a prime piece of real estate in downtown Woodruff. Located on the corner of Main Street and East Hayne Street, the building has also hosted several other businesses in the past. It was a gas station before Foster opened his shop, and soon after he closed, a flower shop opened. Today, it’s the home of The Snow Castle.
If you had shoes that needed the sole replaced or you were a dancer that needed taps added or replaced, Foster was the man to see. He also made ladies’ sandals, which he said sold quite well.
For a brief stint, he even taught the trade at Woodruff High School, but it didn’t quite catch on. “[The students] just didn’t have an interest to pursue the trade and I couldn’t teach them more as they would have had to use a knife to cut the leather and it would have been a liability,” said Foster.
He learned the shoe repair trade starting at the age of 12 from his maternal uncle who owned a cobbler shop in Washington D.C. While visiting his uncle in the summers, Foster would work and save his earnings to buy the shoes, clothes, and school supplies that he would need throughout the year. When it was time to join the world of employment, shoe cobbler was not his first choice for a career. He worked in manufacturing for a bit, including at the Adidas manufacturing plant in Spartanburg that produces sports clothes and shoes. After working in manufacturing, he decided it was time to put all the skills he had learned over the years and open his own shoe repair shop. Woodruff had always been home for Foster, so what better place to open his own business than in his hometown?
Foster enjoyed being a shoe cobbler and making sandals for women and children. He even expanded his services to do repair work for several local funeral homes, such as Lanford Funeral Home in Woodruff, and Gray Funeral Home in Laurens. With his tools and skill set, Foster was able to repair artificial grass, tents, chairs and other leather goods for the funeral homes.
Joe Suber, who owns a barber shop on Main Street in Woodruff, said that Foster is a “jack of all trades.” Suber and Foster have been friends for many years and has appreciated Foster’s many talents. When Foster was still in business, Suber would stop by and they would chat about family, friends, business and the town.
Foster closed his doors in 2005 when it was clear the trade was going downhill. “It was when prices for shoes dropped. People could go out and buy a pair of shoes for a couple of dollars. They no longer needed my services,” said Foster. He simply could not compete with the sales that the department and shoe stores offered. If he continued on in today’s economy, materials would be more expensive and his prices would double. “Why would someone want to pay me $17 to replace a half leather sole or $25 for half-sole and heel or $28 for a whole sole? That was more than they were paying for a new pair of shoes!”
It’s no surprise that the shoe repair industry is and has been on the decline for some time now. The Shoe Service Institute of America reported the number of shoe repair shops in the country was around 100,000 in the 1930s, then around 15,000 in 1997, to about 5,000 today. Looking a little closer to home, there are only about 90 shoe repairers work in South Carolina, according to the most recent report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Foster’s decision to have closed shop when he did proved to be a good business move.
Many customers remember him and ask if he would go back into business. He stated that in spite of how much he loved repairing shoes, he sees no incentive to reopen. He does occasionally work when someone needs a handyman in carpentry or plumbing. His only son lives in Asheville, and would not have taken over his father’s business. Foster said his son pursued his own interest and is a very talented tattoo artist. At 76, Foster is now enjoying his retirement and frequenting Friends’ Café on Main Street for breakfast.