Kindly old cobbler has no shortage of customers Del. shoemaker, 92, works 10-hour days

August 18, 1991|By Edward L. Kenney | Edward L. Kenney,Wilmington News Journal

WILMINGTON, Del. -- They say you shouldn't judge someone until you've walked a mile in his shoes.

Scores of people have walked in Lou Cavuto's shoes -- the shoemaker has made and fixed them since 1911.

Customers can't help but smile as they walk into Mr. Cavuto's Vandever Avenue shop, whose expanse of windows blinks out through Venetian blinds at the corner of North Market Street and Concord Avenue.

This day, 69-year-old Ernest Watson -- wearing shoes Mr. Cavuto made him -- pops into the shop to take a breather from his job at the nearby Hearn's Restaurant.

"I've known him for about 50 years," says Mr. Watson of the shoemaker. "One of the kindest men you ever want to meet. He does things for people, doesn't charge them. He's one of God's gifts. He's a lovely man, I'll tell you. I come and see him every day."

Open for business 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. each weekday -- the fTC 92-year-old Mr. Cavuto sometimes feels like ducking behind the counter when he spots customers coming, as he dips his shoulder to illustrate. More customers are not what he needs. "It's too much, and I'm getting old," he says.

He used to work for the sheer joy of it; now he works for his health.

"I enjoy it because I feel better when I work," says Mr. Cavuto, a native of Italy who immigrated to America in 1922. "I keep myself moving, my hands nimble. When you stop working, you're dead. You might as well dig your grave."

A woman comes in for shoes her son dropped off and Mr. Cavuto invites her behind the counter to help him look for them. He keeps finished work on several shelves near the ancient shoemaking machinery of the old-country style shop. After about five minutes, Mr. Cavuto finds the shoes.

Those who come to Mr. Cavuto for business have usually heard about the shop through word of mouth. He doesn't advertise, and there is little evidence outside the plain white building that it is a shoemaking establishment.

"I've only been here 66 years," he says. "What do I need a sign for?"

He moved to Vandever Street in 1942, relocating from a nearby shop on East 22nd Street, where he'd been since 1924.

"There used to be a trolley come here and they used to have rails," says Mr. Cavuto, when asked about the changes he's seen in the neighborhood. "Of course, the Market Street Bridge used to be a wooden bridge."

When Mr. Cavuto first came to Wilmington, he moved in with an uncle at Front and Adams streets, then worked for other shoemakers and at a couple of factory-type jobs until he earned enough money to open his shop. In 1926, he met and married Mary Antoinette, also an immigrant.

The 80-year-old homemaker, hair piled neatly in a bun, steps briefly into the doorway that leads from the couple's living quarters.

"I just come in here and help him a little bit; keep it clean and mop up," she says.

The two have five daughters and 16 grandchildren. "I don't know how many great-grandchildren," Mr. Cavuto says. "I have a daughter who's a great-grandmother herself."

Perhaps more incredible than all his progeny or years of shoemaking in Wilmington is that Mr. Cavuto has only taken one vacation in 66 years; he closed his shop for a month in 1974 to visit his family in Abrutti, Italy.

Abrutti is where Mr. Cavuto first served as a shoemaker's apprentice -- 80 years ago.

"I worked on shoes until 1917, and then I was called into the army for World War I," Mr. Cavuto says. "I served 44 months in the army."

Mr. Cavuto, wearing a blue apron spotted with brown glue stains, now counts a former Wilmington mayor and "a lot of judges" among his clientele.

"I want people to be satisfied," he says. "I do everything possible so when they go out of this place they don't have anything to say about it. People respect me because I respect them."

Some of his customers are Du Pont Co. employees who sometimes get transferred, so Mr. Cavuto also has fixed shoes for people who live hundreds of miles away.

"I used to send shoes from one part of the country to the other -- even from the Virgin Islands. Even now I get some from Colorado who send their shoes here. That's because they have family here. Sometimes they send to me, sometimes they bring them themselves."

In between fixing shoes and an occasional handbag or belt, Mr. Cavuto says he lives a simple yet contented life.

"Five o'clock I eat my supper, lie down a little bit and then I go back to work. I don't have to go anyplace, 'cause I live right here."

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