Share story

On Aug. 23, 2002, Leland Bonnett was on the clock, getting a drink of water at the Safeway distribution center in Spokane when a co-worker got careless with a forklift. Bonnett lost all of his toes and chunks of both feet. Out-of-the-box shoes have been out of the question ever since.

The orthopedic shoe company Bonnett was referred to wouldn’t build him boots, and his feet slipped around in their shoes. Neither of Spokane’s well-respected boot-makers — White’s and Nick’s — could do anything for him. Scouring the Internet for solutions, Bonnett found an orthopedist in Seattle who pointed him toward a shoemaker in Pike Place Market named Walter DeMarsh, the owner and sole employee of Mobeta Shoes. DeMarsh said he could help, but that he’d have to meet Bonnett at his shop.

DeMarsh doesn’t take orders over the phone. There aren’t boxes of new shoes in his shop on Western Avenue, directly below where they throw the fish. He has a line of shoes in the windowsill, but they’re not for sale. They’re for conversation.

“The first time I walked into his shop,” Bonnett says, “I thought I was going back in time to the mid-’70s.”

Most Read Local Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

The shoes go back even further.

DeMarsh learned how to make and fit leather, orthopedic boots and shoes from scratch at the Fremont shop of Heinz Heiss, an Austrian immigrant who fought in the German army along the Russian front during World War II. Heiss built DeMarsh one boot in 1974 after some “trauma” left him with a short left leg. Uninterested in pursuing academia with the history degree he earned at Western Washington, he asked Heiss if he’d take him on as an apprentice.

In 1979, DeMarsh rented a space of his own in the Market for $75 a month (it’s $800 today), and started building shoes the way Heiss was taught by monks in Austria before the war.

“I’m essentially making shoes as they did in the first half of the 20th Century,” he says. “The techniques I use are way out of date. And it’s slow.”

To start, DeMarsh measures each foot, uses ink and orthopedic print paper to gauge pressure points, and carves a last — a wooden mold the shoe is built around. Then he cuts leather, stretches it over the last and stitches together the start of a shoe. No two perfectly match, even if they’re in the same pair.

“When you have two different feet, you have two different shoes, which is very different for many people to understand,” DeMarsh says in his booming voice that crescendos to a roar when he makes his final point. “They want shoes that are symmetrical, because that’s what the world has. But they don’t have symmetrical feet, and they don’t get symmetrical shoes.”

DeMarsh is a tall bookworm who wears his silver hair behind a bandanna. His shop is filled with vintage tools, shoemaking instruments and two racks of jackets that hover in the 44 long range. The surfaces in his shop are covered with history books and Native American art, much of the latter purchased from beginners.

“I want to encourage them that whatever their efforts are, they have some value,” he says. “Even if it’s only the first step. Not unlike the shoe, you know, you’re trying to get somewhere.”

The fitting and construction of a pair of shoes, DeMarsh says, is a collaboration with his customer that is rarely perfect on the first pair. There are times during the process when customers can voice concerns and major adjustments can be made, but if the final product is a complete failure, customers can choose to walk away or continue the process — at their expense.

“You get to pay for the mistakes,” he says, “because it’s all what it takes to get you what you need.”

That may seem harsh considering the cost: a minimum $550 for the last (typically only purchased for the first pair), $850 for the shoe. But DeMarsh’s competitors and colleagues — the few who remain in the business — say DeMarsh’s shoes are a bargain when you consider what he provides. Kevin Leahy, a California boot-maker who also apprenticed with Heiss, starts his hiking boots at $2,000. Craig Corvin, who makes custom boots and shoes part-time in Seattle, starts his prices at $1,500. But that’s only because the market won’t allow him going any higher, and he’s not trying to support himself by making shoes.

“Even what Walter is charging is too cheap,” says Corvin, who spends at least 100 hours on each of his orders. “The English makers are charing the equivalent of $3,500 to $4,500. That’s how much I would have to charge to actually make a living at it, otherwise you’re making around minimum wage.”

That’s not much of an exaggeration. DeMarsh says he only has the capacity to make about 30 pairs of shoes every year. The business’ finances make it a lonely profession. It’s impossible to tell how many people do what DeMarsh does, though Leahy estimates there are less than 50 people with DeMarsh’s skills in the country.

People show interest in apprenticing from time to time — and DeMarsh has a promising student in his shop right now — but so far, nobody has stuck with it long enough to fully learn the trade. The finances inevitably get in the way. A bellhop at the Four Seasons, for example, showed a lot of interest a number of years ago until DeMarsh opened up his books.

“He found out that he made more money than I did,” DeMarsh says. “And that was the end of him.”

Longtime customers say DeMarsh’s price and process are more than worth it.

Since birth, Joanna Campbell’s right foot has been shorter and smaller than her left. In the late ’80s, she started making regular trips to Ireland from her home in Connecticut to work with shoemakers. When her Irish sources dried up, she tried several shoemakers in England, but was unimpressed. Campbell found DeMarsh in the ’90s, while flipping through the yellow pages when she was visiting family in Seattle — where she lives today. She’s since had six pairs of shoes and boots made. She won’t wear anything else.

“Without his shoes, I couldn’t walk,” she says. “I would be chair-bound. And that’s not my style.”

The process isn’t for everyone. After 35 years, DeMarsh doesn’t have as many repeat customers as he thought he would when he started.

Customer who stick with DeMarsh say that the fit improves each time they buy a new pair. Bonnett, for example, says there’s “no comparison” between his first pair and his 10th. Over the years, DeMarsh makes adjustments to customers’ lasts based on feedback and the changing shape of their feet.

DeMarsh points to a last that’s peppered with holes, added each time it’s used to make a new pair of shoes. Heiss built the last for Fred Hyde in 1972 — a gift from his father, who thought his son should have a nice pair of shoes before he started law school. DeMarsh uses the same lasts to fill orders for Hyde today.

“Now, I’m part of a historical continuum,” he says, “and I always wanted to be that — the successor. And, not a lifetime — but getting close to it — of service to the individual that’s difficult to fit.”

Mobeta Shoes, 1522 Western Ave., Seattle (206-623-7029 ormobetashoes.com).

Chris Kornelis is a writer and editor based in Seattle.