Gnarled fingers. Stained smock. The smell of leather. Piles of shoes.
Like a scene from Dickens, 90-year-old Alex Bredologos is in his workshop, a cobbler bent to an ancient and struggling trade.
Alex’s Shoe Repair in Virginia Beach is a relic of a bygone age — a time when things got fixed instead of tossed.
Expect no décor. No froufrou. No cream or sugar for the coffee brewing in the back. And in the half century he’s been in this small Hilltop storefront, no remodeling.
Same brown carpet. Same vintage machines for stitching and finishing. Same iron tools and hand-written receipts and dusty displays of shoestrings, polish and cleaner. A calendar on the wall is from 1988.
The shoes are all that matter, and they’re everywhere. Stacked in boxes to the ceiling. Crowded onto countertops. Waiting on shelves and work benches. A jumble of boots, heels and oxfords kept in orderly procession inside his head.
“Some days I think I might retire,” Bredologos said, the sounds of his native Greek still heavy in his speech. “Then I think, no. To work is good.”
He holds up a fine, Italian-made shoe. “Quality. This is what I like. Good leather.”
He’s remarkably healthy for his years, with a straight back and strong hands, even a full head of silver hair. His labor in this humble shop supported his family and put both of his kids through dental school. The 10-hour days he does now — closed only on Sundays— are a cutback.
His daughter and son, in dental practice together on Laskin Road for 30 years, spent much of their childhoods helping at the store.
“If we didn’t, we didn’t see him,” Maria Mendrinos said. “He was gone when we got up and he was still gone when we went to bed.”
Her brother, Stelianos “Steve” Bredologos, remembers being “so small that Dad had to put a box at the counter so I could work the cash register.”
But “he never pressured us to follow in his footsteps,” Steve Bredologos said. “He always just wanted us to do something that made us happy.”
That’s typical these days, said Jim McFarland, president of the Shoe Service Institute of America, a trade group of about 500 cobblers.
“This is a hard business where you’re standing up all day,” he said. “People don’t really want that for their kids.”
McFarland figures half of today’s cobblers are over age 50 and about a quarter are 75-plus.
The industry has been dwindling for decades, a victim of mass-produced footwear that became cheap enough to replace instead of repair. Shop counts have fallen from 120,000 in the 1930s to about 5,000 now. An exact number in Hampton Roads is hard to come by, but an internet search turns up less than 20.
“A lot of people don’t even know cobblers still exist,” McFarland said.
All those shoddy shoes wind up in landfills, “more than 300 million pairs a year,” he said, “and they’re mostly manmade materials that’ll take hundreds of years to degrade.”
Bredologos learned his craft long before the throwaway era. He was a teenager living in the shadow of World War II in Greece when a shoemaker near his family’s house offered to teach him the trade.
In 1967, he and his wife plus a handful of family members immigrated to the U.S., heading to Hampton Roads, where a relative lived. He went to work for a repair shop in Virginia Beach, opening his own in the early 1970s.
At the Hilltop West Shopping Center, “he’s the only original tenant left in their original spot,” Steve Bredologos said.
Leanne Stone, a longtime nurse who lives in Bay Colony, has been a customer for years.
"I used to go in there with my parents,” she said. “It just reminds me of when I was a kid — just a basic, old store — and he hasn’t aged one bit.”
At its peak, the shop hummed enough to keep two assistants busy in addition to family.
“While other kids were at football practice or out playing we were at work,” his son said. “But we didn’t mind. We never even thought about it. It’s just what you did to help the family.”
After sister and brother went off to college, their mother, who died in 2015, filled in. Business slowed along with the national trend, but the door still swings open often enough to keep their father occupied.
The parade was steady on a recent day: men in need of new soles for classic shoes that never go out of style; women picking up boots that Bredologos had tailored to fit their narrower or wider calves.
One job called for him to install zippers in a pair of cowboy boots to make them easier to get on for the wearer, who’d been disabled in an accident. Another request: restore a $2,000 pair of Christian Louboutins that had been chewed on by a dog.
“I fixed them for $55,” he said, grinning as he described how "the lady was so grateful she said ‘I could kiss you!’”
Lee Ann Smith was among the flow of customers. She’s a regular, bringing purses and belts in addition to family shoes.
“My husband has a pair he’s had for 30 years,” she said. “He just keeps getting the soles and heels replaced.”
McFarland, at the trade association, said more folks are coming around to that kind of thinking. Before the pandemic hit, repair shops were enjoying a revival.
“I never thought I’d see this come back in my lifetime, but young men have started investing in really good shoes all of the sudden,” he said.
Well-made men’s leather shoes, which can range from several hundred to several thousand dollars, “have become, like, a fashion thing again,” McFarland said. “In the first few months of 2020, we’d never seen numbers like we were doing.”
COVID quashed it. Shops were closed for months. Work and dress shoes are idled in closets.
“I hope these shops can make it,” McFarland said. “There’s a lot of promise for the ones that survive.”
Bredologos seems equipped with patience. He collects when the work is done — no credit cards, please — and he’ll hold shoes for up to a year waiting for owners to return.
“His mind is like a computer,” his daughter said. “He knows exactly where everything is in here and what belongs to who. He knows who’s military and might go away for a long time before they can get back to pick up their shoes.”
As many as 300 pairs a year wind up abandoned. He gives them to charities or the needy who sometimes show up hopeful at his doorstep. Forgotten single shoes — not everyone brings in both — aren’t much use to anyone.
But a knickknack spotted on an cluttered shelf has a message that makes even the loners seem a bit magic:
One shoe can change your life ... Cinderella
Joanne Kimberlin, 757-446-2338, email@example.com
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