Baltimore shop known worldwide for magic touch in shoe repair

October 08, 1990|By Rafael Alvarez

A woman down in Amarillo, Texas, with a narrow foot and the name Harriet Strimple had a pair of aqua, doeskin high heels that she simply adored.

"They fit so well," said Mrs. Strimple of the shoes she bought more than 20 years ago. "But the heel was out of style."

What to do?

Wrap the shoes in brown paper and mail them off to Baltimore to have the heels fixed, of course.

Because, according to the advertisements for Century Shoe Repair at 207 Park Ave.: "The most expensive shoes you own is the pair that you can't wear."

A business as old as its name with a cash register that doesn't go any higher than $9.99, Century was founded above the old Wyman Shoe Store on Lexington Street by Sam and Izzy Myerberg, brothers new to America from Poland.

The Park Avenue site is the last building still in use from a business that once had a dozen stores around town, a shoe repair garage where battered wingtips and wobbly Cuban heels ride between floors in a wooden box on pulleys.

They start out on the second floor where just about every day Isabel Bradley uses a putty knife to open packages from places such as India, St. Louis, West Germany, Minnesota, the Virgin Islands and Hopewell Junction, N.Y., as shoes arrive from little towns, big cities and the middle of nowhere.

The work is solicited by black-and-white advertisements from another age, art deco ads that have appeared over the years in Vogue, Redbook, House & Garden and Glamour and that run regularly today in House Beautiful.

The orders come with little notes. Mrs. Bradley, one of the handful of people with strange and varied talents who have made Century Shoe Repair known around the globe, uses them to satisfy her hobby in handwriting analysis.

Just as Century's master cobbler Charles Jones says, he can tell someone's personality by the way the shoes are worn out (if the backs are pushed down, the owner is probably too lazy to untie them), Mrs. Bradley says she can fathom what customers are like by the notes they write.

"I've made friends all over the world," she said, admitting a particular fondness for customers who, like her, own Scottie dogs. "I've never met them, but I know them."

Shoes made like fishermen's net arrive with rips to be stitched, shoes come in for paint jobs, and shoes come in to be stretched wider and pulled longer.

They come with notes like this one from M'Lise Bulloch of New York City:

"For two months I tried to find someone to cover some shoes in the same floral print as my dress, but could not. I finally handpainted the shoes to match, but I would rather have them professionally covered. Please send me your brochure. I know that I will use your services."

Those services are arcane and extensive: reglazing reptile leather shoes; zipper repair; hats cleaned; heel and sole work of any kind; shoes dyed or covered with fabric; attaching instep straps to "give your pumps a new look"; pointed toes made round, or round toes made into a point; shoes stretched wider or longer or made narrow; golf shoes to be made out of dress shoes; broken shanks replaced to correct "wobbly" heels; pumps cut down; shoes made toeless; pumps made into sandals; and all manner of handbag and luggage repair.

The work costs as little as $9.95 for dyeing and as much as $34.95 for new heels in alligator, lizard or reptile leather.

The shop even fixes old baseball gloves, but few are sent in for repair.

"If Century can't do it, it can't be done," said Beatrice Nathanson, daughter of founder Sam Myerberg and the widow of Sol Nathanson, who started the mail-order business.

One of Mrs. Nathanson's early jobs for the company was posing for its brochures -- from the knees down.

Having outlived most of her relatives, Mrs. Nathanson is the current president of Century, assisted by her vice president and daughter, Judy Elbaum, a former nurse who is presiding over a renovation of the old store and hopes to replace the exquisite tackiness of its faded gold and black Eiffel Tower print wallpaper.

In all, Century has a dozen employees, from Walt Davenport, tearing down shoes in the basement, to Jackie Bond, repainting them on the fourth floor, where she shares space with hundreds of old shoes.

Between the top and bottom they make a stop on the third floor, where the nimble hands of 51-year-old Charles Jones have at them with a small hammer and an ancient Singer sewing machine.

"I made my first pair of shoes when I was 10," said Mr. Jones, a veteran of three decades at Century who learned the craft from his grandfather, master boot-maker Henry Bowen, at the old Bowen Shoe Shop, 515 Presstman St. "People like old shoe comfort, and we give them a new shoe look."

Mr. Jones, who used to sing do-wop in town with the Vel-Tones, recalled one lady for whom he had changed the style on an old pair of black pumps three times since 1965.

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