Alvin Hooper, of Memphis, is a highly respected shoe cobbler who keeps alive one of the 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. “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 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.”
Fortunately for this project, Alvin has 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 are working on both men’s and women’s shoes, old and new. They are focusing on heel and sole repair, gluing, cutting, and fine detailing. They are also working on the McKay stitcher and curved needle sewing machine.