Are there still cobblers in the 21st century? Daniel Fox, aka Beeston Cobbler, talks to Joanna Oleskow about his job, customers and sustainability.
There is a place in the middle of Beeston where time seems to have stopped.
Vintage in every sense of its meaning, it takes you back to a forgotten world full of rare smells and sounds.
It is Friday 4.30 pm.
A mixed aroma of rubber, shoe polish and glue wafts around, irritating the nose. Daniel Fox is operating a loud machine – it is called a finisher.
Few minutes more and the last pair of shoes will be done for today.
Cobbler by accident
Daniel is 38 and has been running the business for eight years.
“I fell into it just because I have never known what I wanted to do and I still don’t know. I am just very good at it and working for yourself is fantastic.”
The company was established in 1947 by an ex-policeman, Austin Allock who wanted to work during his retirement.
Daniel’s father, Anthony Fox, took the business over in the late 70s.
Daniel never had an official training. As it often happens with a craft job, it was just by helping his father when he learnt all the skills.
“Sometimes you just learn best by practising,” Daniel says.
He loved to mess around in the workshop observing his father and in the end he just picked it up.
However, at that time Daniel didn’t think of becoming a cobbler.
He went travelling to Australia and South America and it was just on his return when he decided to repair shoes professionally.
Job as any other?
“Many people are surprised when they come here for the first time. They don’t expect to see someone my age.”
But in fact re-heeling, re-soleing or even sewing in a zipper requires strong and skillful hands and good eyes.
What does he like about the job? He answers without hesitating – everything.
Own hands, old tools and tangible effects seem to be a nice counterbalance to the digital times.
However the assumption that his job is only manual would be very wrong.
As Daniel works alone, he has to be also a sales representative, accountant and cleaner. And of course when he has time, he works a bit with social media.
“Every day is different. I could be cutting keys all day, repairing or selling shoes or just talking.” And precisely the human interactions are really important for him.
“People bring here shoes or bags for repair but they also have many interesting stories to tell.”
Among Daniel’s customers are artists, private investigators and policemen, so there is always something going on.
The small workshop in Beeston seems to have also an international fame.
There is one customer who comes every year from China to buy a certain type of heels.
“They have a metal quarter tipping which makes them last longer but it is impossible to get them in China. He takes tens of them for his father-in-law, who is a cobbler,” Daniel says.
There is also a loyal customer from Paris. She comes twice per year to visit her sister in Beeston and always pops in to buy a pair of English shoes.
It is not only Daniel’s personality and service, which make customers come back.
There is something special about the place. Just at the entrance two antique armchairs almost invite for an afternoon tea.
With the picture of Mona Lisa and an exhibition of leather goods the workshop could be an art gallery or a museum.
There is an old Singer machine, which was originally used at Nottingham Playhouse to amend costumes, an old horse collar from Lincolnshire and there is Woody, a cobbler doll, the symbol of the place.
“The majority of the items is from our customers. They know that we are also vintage so they will match with the place.”
In 2013 the shop had to change its premises due to a development plan.
For Daniel it was a very hard time, but he knew that every change could bring an opportunity.
With twice as much space available Daniel decided to develop another branch of the business and became a stockist of Barkers.
“People used to come and ask us where to buy a good pair of shoes and we always said go for Barker. But I never liked sending people away, so once we moved to the bigger shop I got in touch with Barker and proposed to stock their shoes here.”
“The rubbers and plastic commonly used nowadays are hollow inside and this is the reason why they crack or crumble just after 6 months”, Daniel says.
“To make a pair like Barkers there are around 200 processes involved. This quality has its price but in exchange the shoe lasts better, looks better and cleans better,” he adds.
‘This job will never die out!’
Daniel does not know for how long he will be running the business and if this is something he wants to do for the rest of his life.
There is however one thing about future he is sure: This job will never die out.
“Many people think that nowadays no one repairs the shoes anymore. But just look at the shelf. It is not true.”
According to him people who have an expensive or just comfortable pair of shoes, will keep the comfort at any cost.
“It is all about the sustainability, keeping things going and lasting for longer. My aim is to help people with that.”
He agrees that in the 90s it might have been tough for the cobblers, as there was a decrease in shoe repair demand but now the trend is changing.
It is more fashionable nowadays to have the old shoes repaired rather than buy a new pair instead.
Daniel’s biggest challenge? Definitely not the decline in customers’ demand.
“Only that I have to much work to do and that I work alone, beside this, it is really fun.”