Shoes make the man is not just a saying in Ron Ramuta’s case. He’s a cobbler who has been repairing shoes since he was 15. Shoes gave his family a middle-class life, but the craft, like so many others, has been declining for decades.
Shoes don’t just tell Ramuta about the man, but about the society, a challenged middle class, Seattle’s evolution and a throwaway culture fed by cheap mass manufacturing. All of that ran through a conversation we had after I dropped off some shoes and found out he’s retiring later this year.
He’ll be 72 next month and said he doubts anyone will want to take over the shop when he and his wife, Louise (she works the counter while he fixes shoes in the back), retire. The repair business is dying, Ramuta said.
Enough people need the service that whenever I go in, there’s a huge mound of shoes on the counter waiting to be sorted and repaired. There’s enough work to keep him busy, but the shop used to have more cobblers, and Seattle used to have more shops.
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There was even a cobblers union and an apprenticeship program that trained new cobblers, but Ramuta said that hasn’t been the case for a couple of decades. Ramuta said he and Louise bought their house on the Eastside with shoe-repair money, but they couldn’t do that if they were starting out today. He lamented that people who work with their hands don’t have so many options today.
“Not everyone wants to work on computers,” he said.
His father, Frank Ramuta, came to the United States from Slovenia during World War I and worked his way across the country as a hod carrier, a logger and then repairing shoes in California. Ramuta’s grandfather made boots for officers in the Austrian army, so there was some history with shoes already.
Frank Ramuta moved up the West Coast, met his future wife in Seattle and went to work repairing shoes at Nordstrom, then opened his own shop at Frederick & Nelson in 1945.
“I practically grew up at Frederick & Nelson,” Ramuta said. His mother used to take him to F&N for sundaes, and as he got older he spent time in the shop helping out and eventually working on shoes himself.
After high school, he planned to go into architecture, which he studied at night at the University of Washington while working days in the shop. But college wasn’t for him, so he quit and went back to work.
“I’ve never been sorry I got into the shoe business. It was a relief when I quit the U,” he said, because he could work with his hands. He liked seeing the results of his work and figuring out how to fix various problems.
Ramuta worked with his father and eventually took over the business. At Frederick & Nelson, there were usually seven people working in the shoe shop, sometimes as many as a dozen. These days, department stores don’t have shoe-repair shops.
Frederick & Nelson went out of business in 1992, and Ramuta moved the shop to its current location, 609 Stewart St., but the shoe-repair business was already losing steam. Ramuta couldn’t afford to hire extra help, so he and Louise ran the shop with their son and Louise’s sister.
Shoes changed, too. “They used to be all leather,” he said, “but now there’s lots of plastic and vinyl.” A cobbler has to figure out how each pair is constructed; some can’t be repaired.
People’s habits are different. Early in his career, customers owned a few pairs and brought them in to be repaired. Today, people own lots of shoes and often toss them when they become worn. He’s had young people stop in and say they didn’t realize shoes could be repaired.
Around Easter, there used to be a flood of customers wanting their white shoes dyed and repaired. That doesn’t happen now. He doesn’t dye shoes anymore, because people mostly wear black, or brown, even women.
He fixes soles or heels over and over again, and that’s not as much fun as the variety of working with leather, stitching, dying, nailing and using machines his father bought in 1945.
He still likes the variety of orthopedic alterations, or special adaptations for theater actors, who need shoes that won’t slip on stage, or boots with zippers that allow for quick costume changes. He said the 5th Avenue Theatre has been a customer for 30 years and he gets work from traveling shows, too.
There will still be a Ramuta in the shoe business. Their daughter works for Expedia, but their son repairs shoes, though it’s a specialized niche, a mail-order business resoling rock-climbing shoes.
Maybe the time for cobblers is passing, but we need room in the economy for people who aren’t going to work at Amazon or Microsoft, whatever that work might look like today.
Much more than shoes, what makes men and women feel like a million is the ability to use their talents to make a living that’s personally uplifting and that contributes to the community.
Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or firstname.lastname@example.org