Charlie wants to keep on cobbling

December 31, 1991|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,Evening Sun Staff

Mr. Charlie climbed the two steps to his shop, unlocked the door and flipped a switch. The neon sign in the window lit up: "Charles Repairing" in glowing green, the outline of a shoe in pale red.

Carmelo "Charlie" Triolo has climbed these steps to work for more than a half-century. He has repaired shoes in this same little shop in the 3500 block of E. Lombard St. in Highlandtown for 54 years.

But now, when customers with worn footgear come looking for the shoemaker they know as Mr. Charlie, they find the shop closed.

Mr. Charlie reluctantly shut it around Thanksgiving on doctor's orders. He is 77 years old, with serious illnesses he's trying hard to get over so he can open for business again.

"If I don't come back, I don't think I'll last too long," he said. "I want to come back. I'm used to this place."

He returned one day last week so that a photographer could take his picture. One of his daughters, Carmela Triolo, drove him from their house a couple of blocks away. She had put up the sign on the shop's front door: "Temporarily Closed Until Further Notice. . . ."

Her father was delighted at being back. He tied on his blue and white apron and instinctively reached for a shoe on a shelf along the wall. He grasped his favorite hammer, which he's had 35 years, and it snuggled into his palm.

"I grew up here," he said, gently poking a stubby forefinger into his listener's forearm, and then, as he continued talking, into his listener's chest.

Mr. Charlie is short and stocky, with big brown eyes that swell when he's excited. He gets plenty excited talking about his shop in an accent that is cheerful if a bit hard to follow.

He took over the shop in 1937, when the former owner got sick and went into the hospital. Mr. Charlie was 23 then. Now he can't find anybody to take it over while he's laid up.

"It's hard to get a shoemaker anymore," he said.

At least a shoemaker like Mr. Charlie.

He was born in Baltimore in 1914 of Italian parents, who took him back to their hometown of Messina in Sicily when he was 3 years old. At 12, he started serving an apprenticeship with a shoemaker. He returned to Baltimore at 16 and worked in various shoe shops until he found this one.

"He can take a shoe you would throw away and build it back until it's new," said his other daughter, Mary Brown. "People like this you will never find again. Never.

"He reminds me of the old shoemaker who worked all night with the elves to get the shoes done. That's him. He reminds me of the little old cobbler."

Mr. Charlie worked some days from 6 in the morning until 10 at night. He worked many Sundays. He always used the finest materials, he said, and charged his customers the most reasonable rates.

"He's honest," said Mary Brown. "He's too honest. He used to make me so mad. He'd never charge what I really thought he should for all the work he did."

He saved his money and bought a house in the 3200 block of E. Baltimore St. Then he went looking for a wife and married Anna Maria Vice in 1939. They still live in that house. They had five children, and now six grandchildren.

Sitting in his living room, Mr. Charlie said that his work has been the foundation of his life.

"Everything you see, I made with these two hands," he said, holding up two thick hands, now getting soft, but for years as leathery as the shoes he worked on.

For the time being, the work goes undone and the old cobbler sits idle. He has no idea when he might return to work, because the nature of his illnesses, which he prefers to keep private, are unpredictable.

So he visits the shop from time to time. A couple of weeks ago, he was inside and a woman knocked on the door with a bag full of shoes. She wanted to know whether Mr. Charlie was back to work.

Sadly, he had to tell her no.

Last week, no customers pounded on the door as Mr. Charlie proudly displayed the stitching machines he bought in the 1940s and the old instrument he used years ago to pop buttons off shoes.

On the walls of his shop are photographs of relatives, paintings of Jesus, old shoe advertisements, a poster autographed by Brooks Robinson, yellowed news clippings about friends, a hand-written sign that says "We're American of Sicilian Descent and Proud of It," and a cartoon of a monkey sitting at a piano with a cigarette dangling from its lips. The caption: "My name ain't Sam, and I won't play it again."

After an hour of reminiscing Mr. Charlie finally had enough.

"I guess I'll go home," he said.

But clearly he was home already.

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