To update an old riddle about chickens and roads: Why does the lady cross the river?
In my case, the answer is “To find a shoe repair shop.”
It began with a pair of boots, and the only repair shop on my side of the river, a little hole in the wall on a main street where it is hard to park. The person behind the counter made a face that told me she disapproved of the state of my soles, and then quoted me a sum so huge I felt she was tacking on a punishment tax for walking too hard. I took my insulted boots back and went across the river, looking for a non-judgmental shoe repair shop. There was an old-timer there, I heard, who did beautiful work. His shop smelled of shoe polish and leather, and when he took my badly worn boots in his hands, I knew everything was going to be all right. “Only fifty-one years,” he said, when I asked him how long he had been at this work. As I inhaled the pleasant aroma of the shop, I recalled when I was a child and my mother would take me to the “shoemaker’s” (as we called it then, because they not only fixed shoes, they could make them, too). He had had two leather chairs on a tall platform, with metal feet just below which you could rest your feet on while you got a shine. The opera was playing on the radio. Where are the shoe repair shops of yesterday?
And while we’re at it, where are the tailors? Remember tailors? Once you could throw a piece of chalk in any direction and it would hit a tailor shop. Then, tailors began sharing space with dry cleaning establishments. Every dry cleaner had someone who did alterations. He would sit toward the back of the shop at the Singer machine, eyeglasses perched on nose, at the ready. If you asked if someone could “take up” or “take in” or “let out” a garment, the man at the desk would beckon the tailor up front and there would be a consultation. A look at the hem, a look at you, a look at the seam allowance, maybe a nod of approval for enough fabric to let something out, or shake of the head if the fabric was sparse. You would have to put the garment on. In the back. Behind a curtain. Or in a coat-closet-sized room. The tailor would ask tersely whether you were wearing the right shoes. I always brought the pair of shoes I intended to wear the garment with. If it was a hem, the tailor would get down on his knees, and pin the garment. He held the pins in his mouth. I could hear him grunting, from the effort. It took time, it was a procedure. Nowadays, if you are lucky, your dry cleaner might pass on a telephone number of someone who does alterations. The days of the easily accessible and expert tailors and seamstresses are gone.
And how about watchmakers? I would imagine once you didn’t have to wind your own watch, the whole world of watchmaking changed. Nowadays, it is a matter of changing a tiny battery in a mall kiosk or jewelry shop. Or, in more serious situations, the jeweler will “send it out” which usually means back to the company that made it. Where, of course, an expert watchmaker still does his or her thing, though anonymously and long-distance, without the eye contact, or me standing on the other side of the counter, holding my breath, waiting, while he looks through his loupe and makes a determination, and maybe says, “nice timepiece.”
I sharpen my own knives, and miraculously there is somewhere for me to take them to have it done “professionally” (at the kitchen supply shop that provides goods and services to students at the Culinary Institute)so I do both, but neither compare with the memory of the knife sharpener of my childhood: the man who drove the streets of my city in a specially-fitted truck, and a loud clanging bell, stopping when you called out to him, or ran out waving your knives. That guy talked knives because he knew them and loved them, they were his business. I won’t even mention the seltzer man and the milkman, who are not strictly craftsmen, but somehow seemed totally committed to bringing fizzy seltzer and fresh milk to your door. It wasn’t just some delivery man, it was Stan the seltzer guy, Rodney the milkman. (I know, I mentioned it.)
Yes, time moves on, and there is no need for certain craftsmen anymore, and for others, no profit in staying in the business. But what has been lost is more than just convenience. Great workers, who take time and pride in their work, whether it is knife sharpening, or piano tuning, or tailoring or shoe repair or watch repair, are fewer and harder to find, and I worry that we are beginning to forget what great workmanship really is.
When I went for my boots, the man turned them upside down. “How’s that?” he said, with pride. He had shined them up, too. “Beautiful,” I said.
And I promised myself I would always cross a river to get to someone who is proud enough of his handiwork to do a good job.