Hooper and Guy: Shoe Cobbling

Alvin Hooper of Memphis, is a highly respected shoe cobbler who keeps alive one of the world’s oldest traditional occupations. As the owner and operator of Nu-Life Shoe Repair, Alvin has devoted decades to his craft, adhering to the ideals of quality customer service and thoughtful, skillful work. Alvin continues a folklife practice that dates back centuries, of cobblers caring for and restoring shoes, and bringing use and value back to well-worn footwear. While some cobblers historically made shoes, the trade has also always been dedicated to repair and maintenance.

A native Memphian, Alvin grew up in Foote Homes and graduated from Booker T. Washington High School, where he took vocational classes and learned shoe repair from teacher Horace Burchett. “I did not go to college. I graduated and started working,” he says. Hooper began working at a shoe repair supply store while still in high school and continued to work there after graduating. He purchased his own business in 1982 when he was just 23 years old.

He has remained in business into the present. But Alvin recognizes that his trade—his art form—is endangered, with few young people willing to take up the practice. “There are not many of us left anymore, and we have to service a large area. Last year about 3 shops closed due to retirement,” Alvin says. “It’s a dying art. No one is really learning it. Younger people are not interested or haven’t really seen a way they can make money in it.”

As part of the 2020 Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program, Alvin found an apprentice who sees shoe cobbling both as a viable occupation and a tradition worthy of serious practice and preservation. Apprentice Vincent Guy has spent two decades building his own Memphis business, Magic Hands Shoeshine and Repair. “I have been shining shoes for over 20 years, and I want to expand my craft by learning how to fix shoes,” Vincent explains. “I want to learn this trade, because it’s a dying art. I don’t want it to die.” Alvin and Vincent worked on both men’s and women’s shoes, old and new, focusing on heel and sole repair, gluing, cutting, and fine detailing.

Apprentice Vincent Guy carefully shapes a new leather sole on the sanding belt.

 

“It got to the point a couple years ago, he got so busy, he says: ‘Vince, you’ve got to learn how to do this.'”

 

listenVince: “I’ve learned a lot. I never would have imagined that I’d actually be fixing shoes. He’s one of the best in the city. It got to the point a couple years ago, he got so busy, he says, “Vince, you’ve got to learn how to do this.” One day I was up here, and he was just telling me to take stuff apart, and I just watched him. And before you know it, he was just teaching me to take the old tips off of ladies shoes, which is not really hard to do. The biggest challenge in that is not breaking the stem. Once I learned that and he taught me how to level the heel off, it actually became fun. To be able to take a shoe apart and to be able put it back like it’s from the factory, is fun. I’ve been shining shoes almost 31 years, so I never would have imagined that I would actually be fixing shoes, but it’s been pretty good.”

Alvin Hooper works in bright light to thread his industrial sewing machine.

 

“When the economy is bad, people really don’t want to replace shoes. And because there’s so few of us, we get customers from everywhere.” –Alvin

 

 

Field Notes, February 2020:

Upon entering Nu-life Shoe Repair, you are first greeted by the loud whirring of the sanding machine. Machines in various colors and ages line the walls of the 570 square-foot building. As Alvin holds a metal heel to the sanding belt, sparks fly out in every direction. Nearby, the finishing machines double as shelving: spray bottles, aerosol cans, and tins of Kelly’s Shoe cream multiply the longer you look. More than a dozen spools of brightly colored thread sprout like trees next to the McKay stitcher. And then there are the shoes. There are shoes on shelves, shoes in baskets on the floor, and shoes piled in a heap behind the counter. Each vies for space and, as Alvin and Vince can attest, each one has their own story. There are many shoes with classic stories. Quality leather loafers in need of new soles are plentiful. But then there are some with more sentimental stories. Alvin holds a single boot with a chewed up heel. He explains that a woman’s dog has damaged it, and even though the cost of the repair would perhaps be more than the cost of the boot, she wants them repaired. She loves the boots. Alvin and Vincent laugh as they recall when someone came in with a pair of fish-tank heels. While the preponderance of cheaply-made shoes has impacted Alvin’s business, it has not killed it. People still have shoes that they care about and shoes that they want to invest in keeping. When that special pair of heels or leather loafers need a new life, they come to Alvin. And, hopefully in time, they’ll come to Vince too.

Folklife staff visited Alvin and Vince in February 2020. View a virtual gallery of more of photographs from that day.

Media:

Horton, Erica. “For 35 years, Alvin Hooper has made it his business to mend soles, one shoe at a time.” High Ground. August 9, 2017.

Weathersbee, Tonyaa. “Memphis man’s dying trade breathes life into people’s steps.” Memphis Commercial Appeal. November 28, 2018.

Further Reading:

Various authors. A Guide to Making and Repairing Leather Shoes: a Collection of Historical Articles on the Methods and Equipment of the Cobbler. Read Books: 2011.