By midmorning in this shoe repair shop, machines are whirring, blues music is playing and Jim Picard is using a sharp, long blade to lop the sole off a black Red Wing boot. He plunges the knife in, pulls it toward him and saws back and forth until the rubber falls away.
His movements are swift, expert. The bit of blood on the back of his hand is from an earlier scrape.
For more than three decades, Picard has stitched and glued, hammered and reheeled tens of thousands of shoes in the back of Fast Eddie’s Place, a snug repair shop hidden among the chain restaurants and high-rise apartments of Dinkytown, a relic of the neighborhood’s mom-and-pop past. The place smells like leather, rubber cement and the oil lubricating the machines that still, even today, fix things. Then there’s a whiff of the building itself, a century-old hotel.
“You’re in Suite No. 8,” Picard says.
In many ways, the work continues unchanged. Each morning, Picard flips the “open” sign and slips on a black canvas apron and sturdy Birkenstock mules. Then he moves between patching, nailing and buffing machines that date back to the early 1900s. In that context, the shop’s “fancy” sewing machine, built in 1974, seems modern. “We’ll get a computer,” Picard says, “as soon as it can fix shoes.”
Picard, 62, values the shoes and the customers who trust him with them. He often spends five minutes talking through the work he’ll do — its possibilities and its limits. Polish isn’t promised, but he’ll polish anyway, holding the leather up to a light. The shop is closed Tuesdays, but he regularly stops in, intent on keeping the promise in the shop’s name.
“I treat the shoe like it’s mine,” he says. “I think every good shoe repairman has a little of that. I think that shows, too. People know you care.”
There are fewer people who care, these days. Picard ticks off the surviving Twin Cities shoe repair shops, along with their specialties. There’s the Grand Avenue joint that’s good with skates and sporting goods. There’s Kenny, who has a knack for dyes. The cowboy boot expert out in Osseo. (“To get this machine to sew around those pointy toes, it’s a quick swing,” Picard notes. “It takes a little practice.”)
They occasionally get together to talk shop and, last time, fit around a single picnic table.
The group knows to send Birkenstocks to Fast Eddie’s, a specialty rooted in the shop’s proximity to the University of Minnesota campus. Or they might distinguish Picard as “the young one.”
Working at another Dinkytown shop in his late 20s, Picard filled in for Eddie LaPlante, then bought the store from him in 1987, repairing alongside him for years. LaPlante, then in this 70s, warned Picard about the long-term effects of the labor by holding up his gnarled hands.
Decades later, one of Picard’s thumbs is longer than the other. His nail is marked, still, where a drill bit hit. The scar on his left hand? From cutting off a sole. Most common is nicking a knuckle against the quickly-spinning grinder wheel. “That burns, that machine,” he said. “It once tore my apron right off of me. Eddie once lost his shirt — literally.”
Picard is buzzing a heel against that grinder when a light flicks on. A customer. He places the shoe down and scurries out front, to the counter.
A man in his 30s is picking up an order: Frye engineer boots for him, Red Wing boots for his wife. New soles for each. Picard plucks them from the rows of shoes and sets them on the counter. “These are great,” says Michael Gay of Minneapolis, running his finger along the heel. Over a decade of walking and motorcycle riding, he had worn them down, at an angle. Picard had rebuilt them straight, capping them with new, rubber soles and polishing them a rich brown. “Thank you,” Picard replies. “These will wear really well for you.”
“I put new tires on my car yesterday,” Gay says, laughing. “I’m putting new tires on my shoes today.”
Gay is a new customer — a coveted thing in this business. To attract students, Picard cuts keys: “They come in here and discover a shoe repair shop. Then, when the strap breaks on their sandal, they’ll remember.” Decades ago, he advertised in the Minnesota Daily, with an ad that said, simply, “Shoe Repair.” But these days, Google reviews help, directing newbies straight to his less-than-obvious door.
“As little as this place is, on Google I’m as big as the Target,” he says.
He has survived the Target-ization of Dinkytown, and its rising rents, by staying in his back-alley, 428-square-foot space, where he’s installed a car stereo to save space. Bigger windows have tempted him. The little tattoo parlor across the street is for rent, and Picard has long eyed that bright storefront, but he can’t afford the $3,500-a-month rent. “I can’t fix enough shoes to pay that,” he says. Years back, he got a boiler operator’s license so he could maintain the old hotel’s massive heating system in exchange for a break in his rent.
On this day, Picard charges $18 for new, rubber soles, $24 for heels that needed a bit of rebuilding, $8 for a bit of restitching. He also talks one customer out of fixing a pair of tennis shoes, their cushions hollow.
“I don’t like to say no,” he says. But he does manage expectations: “We can do this but … ”
After years of this work, Picard appreciates real leather, small stitches, stacked heels. He gets why people bring him cheap plastic pairs from brands like Aldo and Steve Madden. They’re trendy. They’re fun. “But at the end of the season, it’s junk,” Picard says. “So many shoes now are not made to be fixed. We figure out a way to fix them. It can’t be done, but maybe we can do this.”
His pet peeve is Doc Martens, whose distinctive yellow stitching counts two stitches per inch where Picard would prefer 12. “If that stitch breaks, the shoe unravels ferociously,” he says, shaking his head. “They’ve made a fashion statement out of poor construction.”
The light flicks on, and Picard stands up from his sewing machine, walks through the saloon-style doors to the counter where a woman is waiting with a bag. She reaches inside and pulls out a pair of red, patent leather flats, which have been pinching. Can Picard stretch them? “You’ve given me good advice in the past,” says Liz Greene, who lives in Dinkytown, chewing on her bottom lip.
Patent leather doesn’t easily stretch, Picard begins. It’s basically plastic-coated leather. But he and Greene lean in, looking closely at the shoe. Picard runs his fingers across a small bump in the leather that’s formed to her bunion. “That gives me hope that it is shaping,” Picard says. “And there aren’t enough red shoes in the world.”
“Right?” Greene exclaims, breaking into a huge grin.
“Look at this shelf — it’s the land of black and brown,” Picard laughs.
“I’m actually really glad you said this,” Greene says, “because I’ve been eyeing a pair of red ankle boots.”