Favorite Shoes Got No Sole?
Sam Torrey Shoe Repair can help you get more mileage out of that beloved pair of kicks.
Kevork Tchalekian holds the strap of a lady’s sandal and uses a leather puncher to make a new hole. If there’s a noise, you can’t hear it over the drone of the buffing and sanding machines, which make the room sound as if a small sawmill is in the back. As fixes go, this one is easy. He charges the woman a dollar and tells her to have a nice day.
Tchalekian has owned Sam Torrey Shoe Service on Lee Highway since 1986, first with his dad, who died 10 years ago, and now by himself. They bought it from the original Sam Torrey (shortened from Sam Torregrossa) who started the business in1945 in Cherrydale. It has been in the current location since the 1960s.
The shop has changed little—same signs, the same sharp scent of shoe polish and glue mingling with the comforting scent of old leather. “It’s history,” says Tchalekian, now 52. “It’s in the walls. I don’t even smell it anymore.”He and his four employees repair and polish shoes, sell laces and insoles, and make keys.
They’ve fixed luggage, belts, bags, jackets, baseball gloves, hockey equipment, dog leashes, car seat upholstery, camping gear and gun holsters.
But it is footwear that makes up the bulk of the business: dress shoes, boots and shoes that need orthopedic adjustments. He estimates they repair 40 to 50 pairs a day.
Tchalekian grew up around stores like this. As a child he immigrated with his family to America from Beirut just a few years before civil war tore Lebanon apart. He learned shoe repair from uncles and cousins who owned small businesses in Virginia.
“It’s a craft,” he says. “It’s an art. You learn by doing, and it takes years of doing to get it right. ”
In 1990, Arlington County had seven footwear and leather goods repair shops, according to the federal Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages. By 2015 there were two. “This used to be a pretty thriving business—one on every corner,” Tchalekian says. “It’s more of a specialty store now.
The East Coast still has the highest concentration of shoe repair shops. There are more of them between Washington and Boston than in the rest of the United States. But the numbers are way down nationwide. During the Great Depression, there were about 120,000 such businesses, notes Jim McFarland, historian and spokesman for the Shoe Service Institute of America. Today, “there are maybe 6,500.”
It’s not just that shoes are being made more cheaply now, with synthetic materials that are less expensive to replace than repair. It’s also the training—the way of life.
“When I go to an annual shoe services show, we are the youngest generation there,” says McFarland, also 52. “A lot of these guys immigrated and started in this business. My father grew up in it. I grew up in it. By the time you were 15 or 16, you really knew the business.”
Today’s young people have different interests, McFarland says. His own children don’t want to go into the trade.
Tchalekian’s two sons are on other career paths, too. He says he’s fine with it.
Although fewer stores like this exist now—or more likely, because of it—the shop on Lee Highway is always busy. A steady stream of customers is in and out, and the phone rings:
“Can you fix my suitcase?”
“I wore my boots in the rain.”
Tchalekian tries his best to assess what he can fix and whether it’s worth the customer’s cost. Repairs take an average of three days to a week—sometimes longer if it’s complicated, which can be hard to explain. “In today’s world, everything’s instantaneous,” he says. He works 70 to 90 hours a week to keep up.
Sometimes, to spend more time with his wife and family, Tchalekian brings home work to Annandale, where he has lived since 1970—usually jobs that require sewing, which he learned from his seamstress mother.
Sunday, he says, is the only day he wears shoes like the ones he repairs during the week: “The only chance I have to dress up is when I go to church.”
He expects he’ll be at this job for another 10 years before he retires. “It depends on what God’s plan is,” he says. “Hopefully, someday I will get someone to buy the business so it continues.” Perhaps they’ll keep the name, and someone else will become the next Sam Torrey.
Regardless, Tchalekian doesn’t anticipate the extinction of his trade. Stores like this used to be on every corner. “Now there are just one or two. But they’ll survive.”
Madelyn Rosenberg is a writer and children’s book author in Arlington.