“I was nine years old when I sewed my first pair of shoes,” Tony Franchina said proudly to a customer recently at Tony’s Shoe Depot in Jamestown, New York. “I was always around the shop with my dad. He started in the business in 1923, and after he came home from WWII, he opened a shop in Falconer. I was only 21 when he died in 1968 at the age of 52, but I, and later my son, carried on the business.”
Tony Franchina learned the shoe business from his father and he, in turn, apprenticed his son in the craft. The family is now approaching 90 years in the same business through three generations. “In the late 1940s, there 47 shoe repair shops in Jamestown alone,” Tony explained. “Today, there are only two in all of Chautauqua County. I’m here at 1080 East 2nd Street in Jamestown and my son is in Westfield at 12 North Portage Street.”
Cobbler is the old fashioned name for a shoemaker who repairs shoes rather than making them. During the Great Depression, in 1930, there were more than 120,000 cobblers in the U.S. Today, there are only about 7,000 shoe-repair shops left. However, with so many people feeling the current economic pinch, many people are choosing to pay $10 to $20 or more for a good repair rather than $100 to $400 for a new pair of shoes. Cobblers have been experiencing a bit of a renaissance across the country in the last few years.
Tony Franchina explains the historic decline in the number of cobblers by speculating that many of today’s young workers expect immediate, high paying jobs right out of school. A few years ago, Tony and his wife, Terry, went to Jamestown Community College to explain their work for the College’s Career Days, hoping to attract young, entrepreneurially minded people. “After three years,” Tony said, “only two students showed any interest in an internship, and they didn’t stay with it. When I was a teenager,” Franchina added, “we felt lucky if we had a ball and a bat and a bike. Now some kids want everything—right away.”
Working with fine leathers and high fashion footwear is an art. It requires long study and years of practice. Since the year 1100, London, England has been home to a special class of cobbler called cordwainers, so called for the fine, Spanish Cordovan leather they worked with. Today’s successful cobblers have survived by adopting those high, historical standards.
But an apprentice needs patience. Franchina’s father began as a 13-year-old apprentice in 1923 working for $0.25, a mere quarter, for a week’s work that including fetching lunch and chopping wood for his boss, a Mr. Parsalini, whose shoe shop was on 1st Street in Jamestown. Only after years of training was he able to strike out on his own and land a new job at $3.25 per week.
Many years later, the youngest of the three generations of Franchinas, Tony Jr., attended Jamestown Community College with an eye toward an academic degree. He was also working at a gas station to earn his way. But he discovered he had no time of his own left, and no friends. Tony hired him at the family shoe shop and paid him more than the gas station. “I’ll always be your Dad,” Franchini told his new employee, “but today I’m your boss.” He made one promise, though. “You’ll learn more in 1 year watching me than in 4 years of college.”
Tony’s Shoe Depot does more than repair fine shoes. Franchina also crafts orthopedic shoes, special footwear, for people with deformed and injured feet. He is well known for his close collaboration with foot surgeons and podiatric specialists across the country. One of his earliest experiences in that work, however, nearly caused a family crisis.
A customer, whom Tony will only identify as Mr. H., today, had lost his lower leg in a WWII battle injury. Old style prostheses were painful to wear. Tony was trying to reshape and pad the artificial leg while Mr. H. waited. Tony Jr., at 3 years of age, saw the procedure and ran home in terror to tell his mother, “Daddy must be really mad. He tore that man’s leg off.”
Tony Jr. is now preparing to celebrate 20 successful years in business at Tony’s Shoe Repair & Sales in Westfield, New York. He has also expanded his business to include 1,000 different kinds of gloves in ordinary leather and some more exotic varieties, such as buffalo, lamb, elk and deer.
Franchina Jr.’s interests also include the history of the cobbler’s profession. He purchased a five storey building for his shop and has assembled in the rest of the space a remarkable collection of antique and historically important tools and the machines of shoecraft with an eye to one day opening a Cobbler’s Museum, which would be the first of its kind in the U.S. The Westfield building itself is historically important, having housed in its basement a northern terminus of the Underground Railroad, assisting Southern slaves in their escape to Canada before the Civil War and emancipation.
Old machines in the cobbler’s trade can be valuable in every day use too. Franchina recently purchased for his Jamestown shop a stitching machine which was built in 1895 for a special kind of sewing that some of the most modern shoes require for repairs.
Terry Franchina recently retired after 39 years of service as a registered nurse at WCA Hospital and enjoys working with Tony at the shop. However, when asked about his own plans for the future, Tony delivers his answer with a laugh and a friendly smile. “I’ll never retire. There isn’t any thing I can’t fix, and I love my work.”
Readers who enjoy an engaging conversation and would like to watch a master craftsman work on their own shoes can visit Tony and Terry Franchina at Tony’s Shoe Depot, 1080 East 2nd St., Jamestown, NY, or call (716) 665-4637.