After 72 years, Linardi's still fits Charles Village BALTIMORE CITY

JACQUES KELLY

June 25, 1993|By JACQUES KELLY

A sign shaped like a man's shoe has hung above a repair shop in the 2400 block of St. Paul Street for longer than anyone can remember.

The sign, like the shop, never changes. It seems to mirror the personality of its proprietor, John Linardi, whose family has kept the North Baltimore neighborhood well-heeled since 1921.

"It seems like everything else around here has changed, but I'm still here. I'm not retiring. I'd fall apart if I did," he said.

James Linardi, the shoe repairman's father, opened a shoe making and fix-up shop at 2437 St. Paul Street shortly after his discharge from World War I service in the Army. The senior Linardi was a master cobbler and occasionally made shoes to customers' specifications. Born in Calabria, he was proud of his U.S. citizenship. His portrait, depicting him in his 1917 doughboy's uniform, still hangs on the shop's wall above the buffing machine.

Many of his old customers have heard the story of how his son permanently entered the business after his own stint in the Army in World War II and his dad's death in 1947.

"I never wanted to get into this line of work. I'd seen how hard my father worked and I thought, 'That's not for me.' But one day a piece of machinery broke and my mother and brother went to the supply house.

"When my father was alive he always rented his machines. My mother went in and bought not one, but three big machines and gave them to me. I thought to myself, 'Now I'm stuck here for life. That was 1948.' "

The Linardi shop is the kind of cobbler's den where nobody's ever heard of a Nike running shoe or anything less than a nine-hour day.

This is a house of leather, strong-smelling glue and fashion sensibility. Old belt-driven machines whine away. The floor is splintery wood. The paint flakes off an embossed tin ceiling. A wheezing air-conditioning unit cranks away in the summer. Its place is taken by a cast-iron radiator in the winter. Shoes come in brown, black and maybe white. Most have holes for laces.

Linardi wears a set of green work clothes and a denim apron. When he offers a customer a pair of newly resoled military-style men's shoes, he is justifiably proud of his neat and trim work.

"People will sometimes leave their shoes and never come back for them. I can't sell them and they're getting hard to give away. The St. Vincent de Paul Society stopped taking them and even the Franciscan Sisters aren't too interested," he said.

The block where the Linardi family has traded for more than 60 years has long been filled with small businesses clustered around the busy commercial corner of St. Paul and 25th streets.

"When I first went to work, it was like a little bit of Roland Park, with two-way traffic and streetcars going by all the time. Goucher College was just down the street. The girls lived all around here. Even after the school moved away, some of the teachers came back here and left work for me. This was an affluent area," Linardi recalled.

His father was friends with Thomas Regan, another World War I veteran who had a popular tavern across the street. For years they saluted each other.

Only a few doors away were Frank Lee's laundry, Charles Matassa's barber shop, George Lurssen's florist business, Fannie Gordon's dry cleaning establishment and Charles Kuhfuss' bakery. An Arundel ice cream parlor was also in the block in the 1940s, when John Linardi first went to work as a junior shoemaker.

"I can recall my father coming home from work in the 1940s. He was so tired. There was shoe rationing and everyone needed to make their shoes last. On top of that, labor was scarce. No wonder he died," the son said.

"There aren't many like me still around any more. My machinery is old. Parts are hard to get. I don't know what I'd do if something serious broke down here.

"And people are not standing in line to take over a business like this. But I have no plans to retire. I'm going to keep working here," he said as he stitched a pair of brown loafers.

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