The old-fashioned art of cobbling has been updated. Kevin Berry reports on shoe- repairing in the 21st century
IT COMES as no surprise to hear a group of trainee-cobblers saying they would rather be called shoe-repairers. They love their job and respect its traditions and skills but the word "cobbler" is too close to the phrase "cobbled together" for a modern craftsman's self-esteem.
The Mister Minit company, a familiar high-street name, has its own training scheme for shoe-repairers. Key cutting is another service they must train for and, depending on the size of their shop, there may be others requiring training. Some outlets, known as Minit Solutions, also offer dry-cleaning, film-processing, watch-repairing, photocopying and engraving.
Potential Mr Minit recruits go to the company's Sheffield headquarters for training. There are lecture rooms, extensive workshop facilities and two fully-furnished Minit Solutions shops which are used for role-play.
"Yes, the training has changed", says training manager Mick Glover. "It's much more intensive now. When I was learning, more than 30 years ago, you sat next to a repairer and watched him go over a part of the process and after a long, long time they would let you practise - but on your own shoes! If you were going to wreck a pair they'd let you wreck your own".
Trainee shoe-repairers have a two week foundation course covering customer service, product knowledge, key-cutting and some fundamental repair skills. Anyone who is not suited is gently weeded out.
They then spend four weeks in a company coaching shop near their homes, working alongside an approved training manager and being assessed. Then they go back to Sheffield for the intensive advanced course, lasting one week, to get to grips with the fine detail of shoe-repairing.
Much of the machinery is modern but the shoe plates on which the shoes are held are still made of iron. There are rich smells of leather and glue, the gentle tapping of hammers and the satisfyng hum of machines. Mick Glover's trainees are turning some truly awful shoes into what could become anyone's comfortable favourites. Soles and heels are probably better than new and the uppers are given a generous and thorough polish, perhaps for the first time! It is restoration rather than just repairing.
The trainees are from varied backgrounds and are keen as mustard. Acquiring a marketable skill attracts them, as does the feeling of being virtually their own boss, running their own shop without the myriad of worries of someone who is self-employed.
"I get a good feeling from doing this, I love it," says Mark Dovey, from Cirencester.
"I was a computer-programmer for three years but it got to the point where I was going to work, staring at computers all day and then coming home and working on my own computer. I couldn't stand much more of that. Then I saw this company's advert in the paper.
"It's really interesting work - you see what you've done and you see the look of pleasure on the customer's face. And remember, no two pairs of shoes are the same."
His theme is taken up by David Pearce, a former bus-driver from County Durham. "I wasn't getting anywhere," he says. "I went as far as I could but there were no further prospects and no challenges. I felt like a cabbage basically, but all that has changed now."
All the trainees are guaranteed a position within the Mr Minit empire when their advanced course is completed and in any one week 50 to 60 people are being trained. There is nothing comparable to the standard of training they receive so some of the course graduates, though only a few, do find their way to rival companies.
"You have to deal with all sorts of requests," says Mick Glover. "I've had clowns - real ones! - coming in for their boots to be repaired. When I worked in Leeds I knew that one of the theatres was doing Snow White because someone came in with seven pairs of boots. Thank goodness it wasn't the Giant in Jack and the Beanstalk!"