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Sole survivor keeps shoe repair legacy alive

SOUTH CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Eighty years in business? Credit goes solely to John Taylor. He just keeps hanging in there, a one-man show perpetuating the South Charleston shoe repair shop started by his family in 1932.

The location has changed three times, but not by much. Through eight decades, Taylor Brothers Shoe Repair hasn't budged more than a few doors from its original home near the mound on MacCorkle Avenue.

With his cat, Boots, and his dog, Sadie Sue, for company, the 64-year-old proprietor labors in a windowless back room on the same equipment used by the family founders. A stitching machine purchased in the 1960s is the newest concession to modern technology.

Area schools know him as "the cleat man," an expert at repairing soccer shoes and other sports footwear.

Chatty and cordial, he talks proudly about the business legacy he vows to maintain until his dying breath.

"Taylor Brothers was created in South Charleston about 1932 at 302 MacCorkle, two doors up, where the karate school is now. Leason and Don Taylor started it. My dad, their brother Haskell, was a Marine in the service at the time.

"Leason was a master tailor and did alterations. Uncle Don and my dad were shoe repairmen. In 1960, at 302 MacCorkle, we had a fire and the business burned to the ground. I was about 12. By the end of 1960, we had rebuilt and moved to 300 next door. We stayed there until December 1995. In that time, I lost Uncle Leason, Uncle Don, my dad and my brother.

"My dad came back from the war and went into the shoe shop. My Aunt Violet, married to Leason, was a presser. She had me doing the clothes hangers, putting cardboard on them and getting them ready for the pants and things. I did all the dusting, which I don't do anymore except now and then. I did stocking, stacking up the cans of polish, anything to do with inventory up front.

"When I was a sophomore in high school, we got on a Greyhound bus and moved to Phoenix, Ariz. We got rid of all our possessions to start a new life. My dad and mom wanted to do things differently. My mother had an aunt in Phoenix who said we could stay with her until we got on our feet.

"My mother was a nurse's aide, and my dad worked in maintenance at the same hospital. We came back after three years, but not because we wanted to. My uncles were screaming for my dad to come home.

"I watched them repair shoes for years. I was around 20 when my dad allowed me to work on women's shoes. I had to strip the rubber heels first and set them up. My brother did all the finish work. I was only allowed to strip them and level them. When a woman walks a heel off of high heels, you have to learn how to level it. That's a challenge in itself.

"The next thing was putting heels on women's shoes. I did that for years. I went in the Army during Vietnam, but thank God I didn't have to go. I got stationed in Korea.

"I wasn't sure what I wanted to be, but it wasn't a shoe repairman. I did not think I would continue. But out of the military, I came to the shop. They still had me setting up women's heels. It was nothing to handle 60 pairs a day. I did finishing on the other end, dying, inking and buffing to make the shoes look pretty, both men's and women's shoes.

"One of the brothers had two children, but they were left out of the business when the dad died. The wife wanted the life insurance policy, which meant they bought her out.

"My dad gained power later through Uncle Leason. It went into a four-way partnership with my brother and dad, my mother and me. My mother and dad had control.

"As years went by, we worked every day to keep things going. Things began to happen. My dad went in the hospital for an operation. His left leg was dying. But they made a mistake. He'd had a urine colostomy on his side since he was 45 because he had cancer. He wasn't expected to live over six months, but he lived 20 years.

"This time, they cut something wrong and urine was backing up into his stomach. In the middle of the night, they took him in for an emergency operation. He went into a coma and never came out. We were asked to release him, to let him go. That's one of the requests he had. He was 69. Eighteen months later, my brother, Haskell Jr., died. We called him Butch.

"So I gave myself a crash course in shoe repair. It was do it and survive or go broke or find another job. I was too old for another job.

"Later, I had another dilemma. Our landlady broke her ankle and went to the hospital and died. She was 91. They sold the building right out from under me. To continue in business, I had to find a new location. I was told to be out in 30 days. Look at all this stuff. There was no way I could do that.

"I told them to go to magistrate court to get me a legal eviction notice. That way, I could get 120 days. This was 1995. I couldn't find a building in this town. Lo and behold, my mother found this building. It's the FMC union hall. They weren't using it.

"We moved here in December 1995.

"Like the shop on Fife Street, we've been here forever. I would say we are the oldest business in South Charleston. McClung & Morgan, Salamie's, Haddad's, they're all gone. And now, Evans Lumber is gone, too. We've been here 80 years. That's quite a bit.

"Business is getting better. People are learning to save money and fix their shoes instead of buying shoes and throwing them away.

"All the equipment is original, and it's all paid for. I did sell three stitchers, the antique ones we used to have. During the war, we rented the equipment and they charged us by the stitch. They had a meter on it. Eventually we owned the machines. I bought a new stitcher in the '60s, which made those three obsolete. That's the newest equipment we have. Shoe repair equipment lasts forever. It's good stuff.

"We still get lots of women's shoes. Not as many women are wearing high heels. See that spike heel over there? The manufacturer says two New York City blocks and three days is all they guarantee them for. And the smaller the heel, the faster they wear.

"Women are getting more practical. They're starting to wear things with chunkier heels, and flats. A woman came in here not long ago to apologize to my father. He told her she was going to have nothing but foot trouble if she didn't get out of those high-heeled, pointed toe shoes. She got mad at him. Now she's 83 and she can't wear any shoes except tennis shoes. She has hammertoes, bunions, all kinds of problems.

"I do a lot of work for the high schools, a lot of soccer shoes. I've got a reputation for that because I know how to fix them. Most of those shoes cost over $100. They call me the cleat man.

"See these new boots? An 80-year-old man brought them to me to put spikes on them so he can cut the grass.

"A lot of things have happened to me over the years. I didn't think I would make it this far. A lot is happening now. My mother is 89. She has Alzheimer's and she's bedfast. I take care of her 24/7. That's a job in itself. Everyone loves her in this town. I feel obligated take care of her because she took care of me. I don't want her in a nursing home. She doesn't deserve that.

"The shop is just a living, not a big living. It pays the bills. I can eat, but it's not steak. It's cornbread and beans.

"A dream? I'm too old for dreams. Looking back, I kind of wish I had re-enlisted in the military. I saw a lot of the world.

"After you hit 64, you're too old to go any farther. Life is what you've made of it. I enjoy working on people's shoes. I take pride in making my work look good.

"I've built my own business since my father died. I have a whole new clientele. Carbide was our biggest customer. Now we have to grab everybody we can. I advertise almost twice a month in the paper.

"I'll be here until I die or they take me away." @tag:Reach Sandy Wells at sandyw@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5173.


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