Too often, things that just need a repair get thrown away. Perhaps the right parts aren’t available, or no one around has the skills and tools required to fix what’s broken. When the cost to buy new is small it may not be a big deal, but that wasn’t the case when I went to replace my riding boots.
I’ve had a pair of Oxtar Matrix Gore-Tex boots for a few years. They’ve never leaked despite all the frog-strangling rain I have encountered. I can adjust them to fit my skinny feet because they have two separate Velcro flaps (the updated version has just one flap). And they’re nicely broken in. All was well except the soles, which were worn smooth. They no longer provided a grippy interface with the foot pegs or secure footing on hardtop.
Several boot merchants told me that the soles on boots like mine were not replaceable as they are bonded to the upper in the manufacturing process. My inner skeptic wondered how much those responses were guided by a desire to sell me new boots. When I mentioned this to my buddy Steve, he suggested I take them to a cobbler.
I called the cobbler that my dad had gone to for years but the phone had been disconnected. When I searched the ‘net for his name, the first item returned was his obituary. Moving on I searched for shoe repair shops near my zip code. The nearest was Ace Shoe Repair, which was less than three miles from my home. Somehow I had never seen it tucked in the corner of a small store block behind a place that sells wings (the chicken variety, not Honda’s).
That afternoon I stopped in. While the silver-haired man behind the counter helped another customer, I had a look around. Displayed on the walls were photos and caricatures of the same man on motorcycles—a good sign! There was a faded snapshot of him with a young woman on a late 1960’s vintage Triumph Bonneville. Another image showed the same rider and passenger, a couple decades older, on a Harley Dyna Convertible. Newer still was a shot of the same two atop a Heritage Softail. I concluded that if anyone could steer me right about fixing my riding boots, it was a cobbler who rides.
When it was my turn, I introduced myself. “Ace Agostinho,” he replied. I said that there aren’t many cobblers left. Ace agreed. I mentioned the one my dad went to for years who had died recently. Ace knew the man personally. At one time there were dozens of cobblers in the area, Ace explained, and 20 of them regularly got together for breakfast. Now the whole region has only six—and one of them sends all his shoe repair work to the others so he can focus on repairing clocks. The cobbler breakfast club? That’s down to two. Ace said that young people don’t appear eager to take up the craft. Perhaps they don’t appreciate what a cobbler can do. “Most people today,” Ace said, “when their shoes need repair, they throw them away.”
Not wanting to throw away boots that were good except for smooth soles, I placed my Oxtars on the counter and asked Ace what he could do. After a quick examination he said the soles couldn’t be replaced because they were bonded to the upper during manufacturing. I’m sure those boot merchants would have liked to sell me new boots, but apparently they weren’t feeding me a line.
“You can pretty much take a traditional shoe apart and put it back together, but a lot of shoes today you can’t fix by hammering on a new sole,” Ace told me. “I have to figure out different ways to repair them. I repair more boots for Harleys than fast bikes, more boots with straps and deep lug soles, but I can usually find a way to fix what people bring in. The way I can fix your boot is to glue a new sole on the bottom. With my machine I can remove just enough of the old sole so when the new sole is glued in place it’s the same thickness and the boot fits the same.”
Ace showed me a boot he’d just finished repairing for another rider. First, he explained, he had ground down the old sole. Then he coated the mating surfaces of the old and new sole with contact cement. When the cement was dry, he selected a steel shoe last of the appropriate size and shape to fit inside the boot. He has different left and right lasts for men’s and women’s shoes, dress shoes, cowboy boots, you name it. He selected another steel form to conform to the bottom of the new sole. Using a purpose-designed pneumatic shoe press, he squeezed the two surfaces together to force out any air. He left each boot on the press for an hour or two, and then carefully ground away the excess material. Sporting a fresh coat of boot black, they looked new and broken in at the same time.
I said that the process sounded similar to bonding a new tread onto a truck tire that’s bald but still has a good casing – retread boots, essentially. “That’s it, exactly,” he said. He brought out a specific Vibram sole that he recommended for my boots and told me he could do the job for $50. That’s less than 1/6th the cost of the new boots I was considering. I decided to give his solution a try.
A few days later, I went back to pick up my boots. “Gee, Bones, you really should clean these up once in a while,” Ace smiled. In addition to the new soles, he had finished them with a fresh coat of boot black. They hadn’t looked that good in a long time. I gave the new soles a close inspection. Unless you happened to be staring at the bottom of my boots up close and knew what you’re looking for, you probably wouldn’t spot the repair. Old school craftsmanship had outsmarted modern manufacturing, and I wouldn’t have to break in new boots, either. Ace made my old boots new enough.
That afternoon I hopped on my Versys for a test ride. The grip with my foot pegs was back. So was a solid feel with the street under my feet with the bike stopped. And the money I saved will buy 4,400 miles worth of fuel.
Your humble scribe gives two enthusiastic thumbs up to Acacio “Ace” Agostinho of Ace Shoe Repair. If Springfield, Massachusetts, isn’t in your neck of the woods, look up your local cobbler. Perhaps a rush of new boot repair business from motorcycle riders will encourage some young guys to take up the craft.
Ace Shoe Repair
1215 Parker Street
Springfield, MA 01129