Business endures industry shift
Oct, 27, 2011
By Luke Baynes
Cobblers are a dying breed, but don’t tell that to John Welsh.
Welsh’s shoe repair business, The Town Cobbler, has been a mainstay of the Taft Corners Shopping Center in Williston for the past 13 years. And while many small businesses have suffered during the recent recession, Welsh’s business has improved.
“(With) the economy, people are digging in their closets,” Welsh said. “Nobody’s throwing anything away. Let’s say you need a new pair of shoes. You go and look in your closet.”
The well-heeled Welsh has been cobbling since the 1970s, when he began moonlighting at DePaul’s Shoe Store in Winooski while still a member of the Shelburne Police Department. Eventually it became too much for him (“I burned out playing cop,” he recalled) and he retired from the force, and opened his own cobbler shop on Shelburne Road in Shelburne before relocating to Williston.
Road construction in the 1990s caused Welch to relocate.
“They were gonna build that damn road — that four-lane highway they put in down there — and I knew that anybody down there wasn’t going do well, and there were a lot of businesses down on Shelburne Road that had to borrow money to keep going,” Welsh said. “Let’s say you get going south on (U.S. Route) 7 and you get in that line of traffic — you’re not getting out because you may not get back in.”
After flirting with a location in St. Albans, Welsh said he chose Williston after driving around the area and observing traffic patterns.
“(Williston is) the go-to area, so I’m a go-to business,” he said. “You don’t stay here; you come in, (if) you’re going to Walmart, you drop your stuff off; if you’re going to Shaw’s, you drop your stuff off.”
A former U.S. Marine who was stationed in Cuba, Okinawa and the Philippines, Welsh is the quintessence of “old school.” He doesn’t have a cell phone. He’s never owned a credit card. He doesn’t use the Internet. About the only modern convenience in his shop is a Keurig single-cup coffee brewer, which gets heavy use whenever one of his old police or Marine buddies shows up.
“I’m a no-nonsense guy,” Welsh said. “I’ve been known to throw a customer out once in a while. I don’t take a lot of crap.”
But he has stayed successful because he maintains a base of long-term, loyal customers who value his unique brand of customer service.
“Everyone who knows me from the old days trusts me,” he said. “We don’t sell you anything you don’t need. But if I tell you, ‘You need oil on these shoes,’ then you really do need oil on these shoes.”
Welsh also has a soft side. He sings bass tenor in the choir at St. Catherine of Siena Church in Shelburne. He’s the state coordinator for “Toys for Kids of Vermont,” a nonprofit organization that operates the largest Christmas toy collection program in the state. He also forgoes his usual $12.75 minimum service charge and punches holes in belts for free, with the suggestion that customers instead toss a buck or two in the Food Shelf jar in his shop.
Welsh’s son, David, has been working intermittently for his father for the past 17 years, and will eventually take it over full-time.
“I would like to carry it on for a while,” said David Welsh. “I don’t see myself doing this for the rest of my life, but I don’t see myself stopping anytime soon.”
The junior Welsh hopes the concept of shoe repair can reach the younger generation.
“It’s an increasing problem where a lot of older people know that shoes can be repaired — they remember going to a cobbler when they were young probably — but a lot of parents aren’t handing that knowledge down to their children,” he said. “Therefore, there’s a whole generation of people out there that doesn’t even know that cobblers exist and shoes can be repaired.”
When the elder Welsh, 66, hands over the reins, he doesn’t see himself leaving the cobbling business entirely.
“My life is very simple. I have no hobbies. I have very few interests in life,” John Welsh said. “I’ll (still) come in (after I retire). I’ll putz around.”
And one thing he’s certain he won’t do is wallow in regret, or wonder what might have been.
“Every morning I get up, and whatever life gives me, I deal with it,” he said. “I look back at what I’ve done and where I’ve been, and I don’t think I’d change a goddamn thing.”