Sole survivor: Wilson cobbler withstands test of time to ply trade

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With a thwack of a hammer, a bead of sweat drops from Tim Schnell’s brow and lands next to a dollop of shoe polish. The floor of his workshop and the machines at Rex Shoe Repair Shop are weathered like the boots the 62-year-old cobbler toils to resole.

Both the boots and the dying trade can be salvaged; or at least that is Schnell’s hope.“Shoes aren’t shoes anymore,” he said. “They are a piece of cardboard, vinyl and some cotton thrown in. There are just not that many quality shoes to rebuild anymore.”

While Schnell is passionate about breathing new life into tired soles, it isn’t a trade he set out to learn. In fact, when he joined the staff at Rex 25 years ago, he did it as a favor to his wife Kathy who had inherited the business from her father.

“I was a manager in industry, but I told her I’d come in to help reorganize it and that is what we did. We were downtown, but downtown was dying, so we relocated to Brentwood,” Schnell said. “After a year, our business had doubled, so we bought a home. We had the freedom of being a mom and pop business that people supported.”

Schnell learned the trade from longtime Rex cobblers John Artis and Billy Davis, replacing the tips on high heels or new soles on shoes as well as repairing rips and tears on purses, coats and other items.

“I’m doing the best I can to keep this trade alive,” he said.

Unfortunately, the change in materials used by shoe manufacturers has lessened the need for shoe repair and business has tapered off.

“Everything has been made to throw away, so people are hurt when they spend $50 or $60 on shoes that start to fall apart after three or four times wearing them,” he said. “That is terrible, but that is what shoes are today. If you are going to have something last 10 or 15 years, you’ll pay upwards of $500. I see people bring their shoes back for new soles, but the rest of the shoe is still in good shape because they are quality shoes.”

Velvet Nixon said she remembers being a little girl and bringing her shoes for repairs when Rex was located on Goldsboro Street near her father’s pawn shop. And she’s been a loyal customer ever since.

“It is a wonderful business,” she said.

Schnell said his late wife was better at the customer interactions than he ever has been, but her passing last June left that responsibility on his shoulders. Twenty-two years after moving to Brentwood, the shop also relocated in June to a smaller space five doors down. 

He did his best with three employees to fulfill the demand, but he struggled. He reportedly lost thousands of dollars last year when customers commissioned work, but failed to pick up their orders and pay their bills. 

Schnell tried to sell the 89-year-old business, but failed to get any investors. He closed the shop in December, but the new year brought a new plan and he’s optimistic it’ll help the business survive. As a one-man show, Schnell takes orders at the shop on Tuesdays and Fridays, working on the jobs at his home workshop.

“It is true. Little elves come in at night and help old cobblers like me do the work,” he said with a laugh.

In addition to selling the stock of projects left by customers — sandals, shoes, boots, purses and other items of all sizes and colors — Schnell is getting customers to pre-pay for orders. He’s also asking customers to pool jobs with friends or family to allow him to better schedule his time. He plans to move some of the cobbler antiques he’s collected from closing shops to the storefront and take custom orders for American-made leather merchandise as additional lines of revenue. In the coming week, he also plans to launch www.RexShoeRepair.com to do jobs for people across the country.

“It has always been our intention to one day pass this trade on to somebody else, but that hasn’t worked out,” he said. “All the shoe repair shops are dying. There are few left.”

And while Schnell can’t honor the hand-lettered prices like 15 to 25 cents for rips and $1.75 for half soles on a sign from the original downtown location, he said he works to keep his prices fair. In fact, some tasks like adding a hole to a leather belt are done at no cost to the customer.

“I look like a cobbler. I smell like a cobbler and act like a cobbler,” he said. “My customers have been absolutely fantastic. The community support since Kathy died to keep me in business has been fantastic and I look forward to serving the community for as many more years as I can.”

Rex Shoe Repair Shop is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Tuesdays and Fridays at 2801-2B Ward Blvd. For more information, call 252-243-3571.