Akron cobbler Don Olivo closes his doors after 73 years of mending shoes By Paula Schleis Beacon Journal staff writer10 Published: December 29, 2016
A teenager growing up in the 1940s, Don Olivo remembers hopping a bus after classes at Akron Hower Vocational School to help out at a cousin’s shoe repair store in Goodyear Heights. “I wasn’t sure if I liked it that much,” he said. But a post-graduate stint in the Army wasn’t enough to dull the smell of leather or the satisfaction that comes from making worn things look new again. “When I left service, I thought, ‘Gee, repairing shoes isn’t such a bad way to make a living,’ ” he said. Friday, Olivo will retire after 73 years as a cobbler, most of those years spent at his store in the Wallhaven neighborhood. As he marches toward his 90th birthday, Olivo said he’s finally ready to move on to the next phase in his life, which will include more time for golf. “I gotta wait till the weather gets nice, of course,” Olivo said as he took a break from working on his last few orders. In an era when synthetic materials make most shoes cheap, disposable and impossible to repair, cobblers are a dying breed. An internet search suggests there may only be about half a dozen practitioners left in all of Summit County. But Olivo said he hasn’t wanted for work. As other area shoe repairmen have died or retired, their customers found their way to his store at the intersection of Market, Exchange and Hawkins. Most of his customers are women — a gender that seems particularly fond of expensive shoes, Olivo chuckled. Near his counter, a couple of wall shelves held a dozen recently repaired pumps and high heels waiting to be picked up. “Women buy good shoes,” he said. Of course, there are still plenty of men who appreciate a well-crafted shoe. On one of Olivo’s final work days, the bell above his door rang as Fred Neugebauer entered, carrying a pair of 6-year-old Allen Edmonds dress shoes with holes worn into the soles. “These are good shoes. It’s worthwhile spending $40-$50 to resole a pair of $200 shoes,” Neugebauer said. Alas, Olivo had to turn him away. He had stopped buying supplies in anticipation of his retirement. Olivo acknowledged that time is also catching up to him. His once-nimble fingers don’t move as easily as they used to. “I have to bandage my hands all the time,” he said. “They get a little tired, too.” Olivo said he developed a passion for the craft. There is an artistry to breathing new life into well- loved shoes that come to him with broken heels and worn soles. “I liked it because I could do something creative,” he said. “I liked a challenge. I would fix things that some people say couldn’t be repaired.” He turned over a pair of black dress shoes in his hand to show the new layer of leather he had applied. “When I was first learning, it was drilled into my head that you have to make a shoe look as good as if it just came out of the store. No waves. No curls,” he said, running his hand over the flawless surface. Olivo has been at the same corner for more than 50 years. At one point, work was so robust he hired three cobblers to work with him, but he outlived or outlasted all of them. Some of his customers have become familiar faces over the decades, even if he only sees them every few years. “I always got compliments from people, so I knew I was helping them. I liked that I was helping people,” he said. But more and more folks are giving into the kinds of shoes that can’t be repaired, made of plastics and polymers that are meant to be tossed after a couple of years. Olivo and his late wife, Carmela, raised three children: Anthony, Donna Lynn and Debbie. While Anthony occasionally repaired shoes and Donna Lynn handled the office work, they didn’t follow in their father’s shoe-steps. “None of them wanted it, and I don’t blame them,” Olivo said with a hearty laugh. But he has no regrets making shoe repair a cornerstone of his life. “I would tell you a lie if I said I wouldn’t miss it,” he said. “But I think I can probably get used to not coming into work.” Paula Schleis can be reached at 330-996-3741 or firstname.lastname@example.org.