On the clock: Shoe repair shop owner keeps his customers walking in

As proprietor of Michael’s Shoe Service on Upper Union Street in Schenectady, Michael A. Mastroianni
Master craftsman Michael Mastroianni, of Michael’s Shoe Service located on Union St., repairs a women’s shoe heel at the shop on Wednesday afternoon.
Master craftsman Michael Mastroianni, of Michael’s Shoe Service located on Union St., repairs a women’s shoe heel at the shop on Wednesday afternoon.

People have to eat, so there will always be farmers.

People have to walk, so there will always be shoemakers.

Michael A. Mastroianni likes to think there will always be shoe repairmen, too. As proprietor of Michael’s Shoe Service on Upper Union Street in Schenectady, he replaces soles, extends straps, installs new heels and keeps old pairs of loafers, dress shoes and boots on the move.

Just after 1 p.m. on a recent Wednesday, Mastroianni was replacing the long, pin cylinder heels on a pair of Bandolino black shoes. It’s a chore he has done before for female customers — the same job his grandfather and father did before him.

Started by grandfather

Mastroianni’s grandfather, also named Michael Mastroianni, started Michael’s Shoe Service in Schenectady’s Stockade section in 1926. The original business stood at Front and Ferry streets, close to the celebrated monument of Lawrence the Indian.

Michael’s son, Anthony, began working at the family business around 1940. By the time Anthony Mastroianni graduated from Nott Terrace High School in 1949, he was repairing shoes full time.

The operation moved to 1605 Union St. the same year. Anthony Mastroianni eventually took over the business from his father. Young Michael was always around.

“You were down here as a little kid always,” he said. “Sweep up the shop, change stock.”

Mastroianni graduated from Linton High School in 1972. Some college followed, as did jobs in Schenectady; Hartford, Conn.; and Cleveland. He returned to the store in 1997 and took over the business from his father in 2000. The senior Mastroianni remained at the store until his death in 2008 at age 76.

It’s still a family business. Michael Mastroianni’s mother, Bernadine, is often on the premises to answer the telephone and help customers while Michael Mastroianni works on the leathers.

Barometer of economy

Mastroianni, who late last summer moved his store half a block up the street to the former Save More dry cleaners at 1613 Union St., believes the shoe-repair business is an accurate barometer of the economy. Since the financial dive of 2008, he said, more people have been showing up with bags full of shoes for renovations. They’d rather pay for repairs than foot the bill for new striding partners.

“A lot of shoes can be repaired,” said Mastroianni, 57, dressed in a red short-sleeved golf shirt, light blue denim shorts, brown and black casual shoes and a navy blue apron. “I can pull off some miracles that some of my competitors can’t or won’t. They won’t pay $50 a gallon for glue — that’s the real good stuff.”

The new heels take only a few minutes. Other shoes need new soles, patches or more extensive renovations. The latter jobs are courtesy of canine attacks; dogs will chew all parts of shoes.

“I stretch shoes constantly for people, fitting problems,” Mastroianni said, as he stood at his workbench. “Sometimes we have to put in space fillers to make them a little tighter because they’re loose in the front.”

Some jobs take only a few minutes. “You can fool around with some stuff for an hour or more,” he said.

At 1:20, Mastroianni began work on a pair of beige sandals. The woman who had dropped them off wanted more secure feelings for her feet. She has very slender ankles.

Mastroianni sat at a big, black Singer sewing machine and installed Velcro strips on the straps.

“We’re giving her a good fit so she doesn’t walk out of her sandals,” he said. “I get tons of women who come in here and say, ‘I’ll sew for you, I’ll sew for you.’ ”

Orthopedic projects

Mastroianni also works on orthopedic projects, for people whose legs aren’t the same length. He’ll fix sneakers. He even shines shoes. “They’ll drop off bags full of four, six, seven pairs of shoes,” he said.

Shines cost about $6 a pair. Full refurbishments on boots can go up to $85.

At 1:38, a pair of brown shoes got new heels. Mastroianni placed the old heels over a small sheet of composite material and used a marking pen to draw a half-oval outline. He cut out the new heels and glued and nailed them into the bottom of the shoes. “These are the top lifts,” he said. “The part in contact with the ground.”

At 1:45, a pair of worn Birkenstock shoes received attention. They also needed new heels.

Mastroianni used a sheet of thick Birkenstock replacement material to cut the new heels, grinding off the worn heel and carving an angle into the bottom of the shoe to better accommodate the new addition. At about $125 a pair, people like to make their Birkenstocks last.

“The Birkenstock bed is one of the best out there,” Mastroianni said, looking ahead to the next pair for repair. “That’s where you put your foot.”

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