Descending the narrow steps into Sole Survivor feels like entering a movie set, not a shoe repair shop.
The tiny Kensington Market nook is a calm, dark space, with a cool stone floor and just a few rays of sunshine leaking through the open door.
The time-worn machines in the corner don’t seem usable, but they are. An industrial steel sewing machine, known as a patcher, is a perfect shade of film-set verdigris, while a heel-shaping finisher is noisy, huge and imposing.
Sitting among these archaic instruments is their dark-haired owner. If this were an art movie, she might be an elf of some sort, played by the shy, stubborn indie actress Lily Taylor. But Sole Survivor isn’t a film set, and its human owner is Katie Reed. She’s 27, and she’s a cobbler.
“It seemed like something I’d like to try,” says Reed, who agrees, unconcerned, that cobbling is an odd field in which to find a newbie. Originally from Dundas, Reed went to university in Montreal, before spending some time travelling and teaching in Japan.
She worked briefly in a Toronto urban planning office before deciding she wasn’t cut out for a “quote-unquote professional job,” then ended up “helping a woman make letters out of twigs.”
It was this unusual occupational turn that led Reed to consider a tactile profession. Around the same time, she went to get her own shoes fixed, at Mr. Soles on College St.
“He was cutting a heel and I said, ‘What is that?” she remembers. “I had no idea leather could look like that.” Soon realizing there was no grad school for aspiring cobblers, Reed went to every decent shoe repair place she could find, trying to find a gig as an unpaid apprentice.
Toronto’s reputable cobblers are all longtime veterans, like the 78-year-old Novelty Shoe Rebuilders on Yonge St. At least 30 shoe fixers — all of them men nearing retirement age — turned Reed down. “Most of them said, ‘I don’t have the patience,’ “ she recalls. “In a way it’s kind of positive. They were just way too busy.”
Last spring, Reed finally found a Hamilton man willing to teach her. In half a year, she learned how to cut leather and rubber, how to stitch on the patcher, and shape heels on the giant finishing sander. Her mentor helped her source her own tools and late last August, she opened this spot, Sole Survivor on Kensington Ave.
“I feel like most people who come here haven’t had their shoes repaired before,” says Reed of her clientele. More established cobblers cater to an older, wealthier crowd, but Sole Survivor customers tend to find a cute pair of vintage pumps with a broken heel in Kensington and stop by the shop on a whim. Soon, impressed with the quality of Reed’s work, they enlist her to mend all the beloved shoes (and leather bags) that were headed for landfill.
Between eco guilt and recessionary worries, getting stuff fixed is the new shopping spree. A new heel here is $25, tops, and Reed is happy to get creative. Last week, she had cut the legs off a pair of beige leather cowboy boots — actually, the part that goes over the calf is called the “barrel” — her instructions being to build new, more feminine foot coverings before dyeing the pair red. “The jobs are always a bit different,” Reed says, approaching the project with satisfaction.
It’s part shoe repair, part arts and crafts, and a worthy challenge for a 21st-century cobbler.