November 26, 2018
Faces of Business

Italian immigrant Montefusco puts 'sole' into decades-old, shoe-repair business

HBJ Photo | Steve Laschever
HBJ Photo | Steve Laschever
John Montefusco has been repairing shoes for close to 60 years, 51 of those as owner of John's Shoe Repair in Bloomfield.
Stan Simpson

Diversification key to shoe-repair businesses

To combat falling margins and decreased demand for shoe repairs, many repair operators will leverage their high-traffic store locations to offer other services, such as key cutting, passport photos, engravings and watch repairs, according to a recent report by research firm IBISWorld.

A growing number of companies will also invest in technology and machinery to develop custom orthopedic insoles, the report said.

A cold Corona sits atop an antique Singer sewing machine, as John Montefusco unwinds after a long day repairing shoes.

The 100-year-old machine is a reminder of a circuitous journey that started with him working on a farm and making wine as a young man in Naples, Italy. There, he also repaired shoes on the side.

Montefusco's travels stretched to New York City — "Nuova York" he says through a thick Italian accent — Massachusetts and Connecticut.

He has been repairing shoes for close to 60 years, 51 of those as owner of John's Shoe Repair in Bloomfield.

Short, affable and plain spoken, Montefusco, 78, is a widower with an insatiable work ethic, quick wit and simple tastes. He loves to cook, enjoys good wine, working the garden at his Windsor home and playing bocce with his paisans in Springfield, Mass. He believes repairing shoes is his gift and life purpose.

"I'm proud of what I do,'' said Montefusco. "I love to work with my hands and the machines. I have the mind to work on the shoes. I make the shoes look good. And I like working with the people. I've been doing this all my life."

The middle of three children, Montefusco fondly recalls his younger days harvesting grapes on his father's five-acre farm, the first step to making wine. In 1959, at 19, he migrated to New York City, and went on to live with a brother-in-law in Springfield, Mass. Montefusco secured work at a Smith & Wesson gun factory but didn't like the job and wasn't there long.

An uncle, Tony, ran a shoe-repair shop in Windsor Locks. Soon, there was an offer from him to come work polishing shoes, fixing heels, replacing soles "whatever needed to be done."

Uncle and nephew worked together for seven years, until Tony got ill. John took over in 1967 and John's Shoe Repair was birthed and relocated to Windsor Center. There were a few more locations after that, before eventually anchoring in the Bloomfield Mini Mall on Route 178. Montefusco also added clothing alterations at his shop, using the Singer machine, but later decided to stick solely with shoes.

In the cozy 900-square-foot space sandwiched between a liquor store and Thai restaurant, a shoe shine is only $4; $75 for a men's full sole and heel job, $35 to $45 for women. New heels can range from $13 to $25.

The shop is open five days a week, but most times Montefusco is there every day. He works on about 75 shoes each week and fixes zippers on jackets and pants.

On an average day, he is up at 8 a.m. and at work from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

The shoe business, he says, has changed over the past half-century. Business was better back in the day.

"Busy all the time, every day,'' Montefusco said. "Everything was leather. People didn't have much money, so they would repair their shoes instead of buying new ones. Business is slower these days. It's a throw-a-way society. People get done with their shoes, they throw them away. They don't get them repaired as much."

Competition is scare, he added.

"It's a lost art," Montefusco said. "Nobody wants to do this. You have to get your hands dirty. You work long hours and it's tough to learn."

Indeed, the shoe-repair business is an industry in decline. For decades, low-cost imported shoes and marketing from fast-fashion retailers encouraged consumers to purchase new low-cost shoes in lieu of repairing old ones, which slowed demand for repairs, according to a recent IBISWorld research report.

Mail-in shoe repair businesses have also siphoned demand from industry operators.

The strong U.S. economy and an increasing pool of wealthy consumers stabilized the $389.2 million U.S. shoe-repair industry in recent years, which is made up of mostly small shops like Montefusco's, but growth will largely be flat over the next five years, IBISWorld said.

Customer loyalty

Montefusco notes that his career choice was really about a process of elimination. "I tried barber. No like. Tried to be a baker. No like. I tried shoes. I like."

Montefusco proudly notes customers from as far away as Florida and Georgia, who make it a point to have their shoes repaired at his shop when they are visiting family.

"Makes me feel good,'' he said.

Montefusco most days wears black shoes made by FootPrints and likes the quality of SAS Shoes.

As he nears 80, the shoe-repair man is asked what is next for him.

"Probably, the cemetery," he cracked. "Knock on wood, I'm in good health. I'd like to keep working. What else am I going to do, stay at home? This is what I love to do. If the Lord is willing, I want to continue."

Stan Simpson is the principal of Stan Simpson Enterprises LLC, a strategic communications consulting firm. He is also host of Fox 61's "The Stan Simpson Show," which airs Saturdays, 5:30 a.m. and online at Fox61.com/stan.

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