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In hard times, the sole lives on 

click to enlarge Wes Simmons doesn't have time to rest. - RICH TOSCHES

There are brown shoes and black shoes and tan shoes, green shoes and red shoes, too. Boots and high heels and low heels. Pumps, loafers and stilettos. Leather and suede and ostrich skin, good Lord almighty, and boots made of bullfrog skin and stingray skin.

The shoes are stacked beside each other and atop each other on shelf after shelf. Shoes on the floor, too. Five hundred shoes. A thousand shoes. Maybe more.

But enough about my wife's side of the closet.

Today we're talking about the disastrous recession and how it has hammered businesses. Actually, we're talking about an exception, about a business owner who has not just survived, but is thriving.

Take Wes Simmons. He fixes shoes. And he's more popular right now than New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez at a Liars Convention.

"When I was learning the trade as a young man, the men who taught me said they made the most money during the Depression," says Simmons, born and raised in our village and a cobbler now for five decades.

Simmons' Bon Shoe Repair, at 2129 N. Weber St., is filled with the heavy smells of leather and hard work, of glue and sweat and the grease from rows of nailing machines and heelers and grinders and sanders and finishers, machines made during the Kennedy and Eisenhower administrations and earlier than that, some of them, German-made Suttons and massive Landis stitchers.

The machines still work because Simmons the 70-something shoemaker is also a machinist. He sometimes forges new metal parts and invents shoe-repair contraptions along with his machinist brother, John.

"Nobody fixes this stuff anymore," Simmons says. "So you learn to fix it yourself."

The Wall Street Journal struck first with this tale, of how our economic woes have forced people to keep what they ordinarily would toss, to fix what they would usually replace. The newspaper said there are just 7,000 shoe-repair shops in the United States today, down from 120,000 during the Depression.

"The recession is battering big swaths of the U.S. economy," went the Feb. 2 front-page story, "but it's given a new lease on life to the tiny shoe-repair industry which has been shrinking for decades."

(WSJ meant that the shoe-repair industry is tiny, not that there's been a resurgence in the repair of tiny shoes. This, by the way, would be known as a "footnote.")

Anyway, here in our town, Simmons is busier these days, with one of 10 shoe repair businesses serving all of Colorado Springs. But his work has been steady for decades, even during the economic boom times, a vast and happy customer base maintaining an unyielding march into his small space.

"I bought this shop 27 years ago, and I don't think I've ever had a down time," says Simmons, as he caresses a new sole onto a worn black loafer.

He arrives at his shop, scraps of leather littering the floor, long before sunrise, often seven days a week. "Sunday is supposed to be set aside for the Lord," Simmons says. "But people need their shoes."

And so 14-hour days are common as Simmons works new life into a battered or scuffed or worn pair of shoes. A complete overhaul new soles, new heels and a new shine might cost you $40.

"Lot better than $200 for a new pair," Simmons says.

It began for him back in the mid-1950s, when he was a teenager who simply wanted to learn a trade. He shined shoes at downtown shops, and at night, sometimes if he was lucky, the old shoemakers might let him nail a new heel into place or sew a sole.

"There was just something about working with leather and shoes that got me," says Simmons.

He is a one-man shoe show, working the machines and hand tools alone. Not many have followed in his footsteps.

"It's hard work. There's a lot to learn," Simmons says. "There was a school in Denver for many years that taught shoe repair. It's out of business now."

He smiles and glances at the overflowing shelves of shoes awaiting his skilled hands.

"No one really wants to work this hard anymore," he says.

And few are tough enough.

Two years ago, a pointed steel awl with a wooden handle punched through a piece of leather and deep into Simmons' left hand. Near the end of the steel prong was a small hook designed to grab a lace and pull it back through the hole.

The hook grabbed a nerve in his hand.

"I tried to pull it out, but it had snagged the nerve. The pain was something awful," he says, moving now to the bench where the accident happened, demonstrating with his meaty hands.

"So the awl was stuck pretty good," he says, "and I'm slumped up there at the counter, wondering what I was going to do. Then it came to me."

He pushed the awl into his hand just a bit further, enduring the scorching pain, and then he gave it a hard twist so the hook would release the fiery nerve. It worked. He slid the tool back out of his hand.

Just a few blocks away, out the front window of his shop, Penrose Hospital loomed. Doctors. Medical care.

Hah.

"I put a Band-Aid on it," Simmons says, "and never gave it another thought."

rangerrich@csindy.com

  • One local business owner has not just survived, but is thriving, in the tough economy.

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