Boots made for walkin’ are worth fixin’

PONOKA, Alta. — Vance La Bine was determined to earn a respectable living at a business many might consider to be gasping its dying breaths. He decided this central Alberta community was the perfect place to accomplish it.

With a plethora of cheap, easily replaceable shoes on the market, shoe repair isn’t often what comes to mind when many people consider lucrative career options.

But La Bine was living in Invermere, B.C., while trying to raise a daughter alone and operate Skinny’s Shoe Repair, when he knew he had to find a better way to make it work.

“I paid rent on the house and the shop. I had two power bills and two phone bills,” he said.

“I wasn’t getting ahead. And I had decided I needed to buy a house and think about my future.”

In 1999, after checking numerous locations along Alberta’s Highway 2 corridor, he chose Ponoka.

Housing costs, food prices and taxes were low, so he bought a house with a stand-alone garage close to downtown.

He modified the garage to house the business and that meant no more double rent payments.

“It was the way to go,” said La Bine, who is better known by his nickname Skinny, which he said was given to him as a child by his mean older brother because he was a “fat kid”.

When La Bine opened his shop in Ponoka in September 1999, there were almost a dozen cobblers within an hour’s drive of Ponoka.

Today, he said there are less than a third that number and that means less competition and a larger customer base to draw from.

In addition to customers locally and around central Alberta, La Bine has loyal followers who mail boots and shoes from Alberta, British Columbia and the Yukon. He also has discovered a new customer base: bikers.

“(Bikers) have a lot more leather than cowboys. I think every biker in Western Canada knows me.”

La Bine got into shoe repair following a construction injury in 1988 when he worked in Prince Albert, Sask.

“I walked around like a Reach (brand) toothbrush for a week,” he said. “I decided I’d had enough.”

After contemplating several less physically demanding careers, he apprenticed with a shoemaker in Prince Albert, then moved to British Columbia where his wife found work, but no shoemakers were hiring.

He and his wife were pulled back to Saskatchewan when he en-rolled in Flander’s Footcare Techniques at Esterhazy. After graduating from the nine-month course in the early 1990s, La Bine headed west again.

He first checked out Alberta’s Highway 2 between Edmonton and Calgary, looking for a place to set up shop. He said every town with more than 5,000 people already had a shoemaker or two.

He worked for others in the trade before finding space to rent for his own shop in Invermere. He had used an inheritance from his father to buy used equipment. His marriage broke up before he set up shop there in July 1993.

La Bine attributes the decline of the shoemaker trade to several factors: increased costs of leather and rubber, the cost of renting space and the availability of inexpensive cheaply made footwear that is difficult to repair.

“It’s the cheap stuff that is harder to fix. Heels that are made of fibreboard just fall apart,” he said.

As well, he said with fashions changing as quickly as they do today, those shoes that can be repaired are often no longer in style when the repairs are needed so many people don’t bother.

“If people spend more initially on well-made, quality footwear it can last for years (with replacements of soles and heels),” La Bine said. “But some people just see the price.”

However, he said there are signs that the trade may be experiencing a small revival.

“A lot of millennials are looking for quality. They are more willing to pay for the work.”

He contrasts that to many older people, who remember the days when prices were much lower and so they are often less willing to pay higher prices for quality shoes.

As he nears age 60, La Bine is contemplating his own retirement.

“I need an intern.” he said. “I had one guy who came and took one shoe apart, but he never came back to do the other one.”

For now, he plans to keep on keeping on.

“I love what I do. It’s like arts and crafts all day.”

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