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Continued: Ralph's Shoe Service: Have shoes, will travel

  • Article by: MARY JANE SMETANKA , Star Tribune
  • Last update: February 28, 2012 - 10:16 PM

Bill Roase has the hands of a working man, with blunt strong fingers, knotted joints and a busted knuckle that just won't heal.

They're hands that would have their way with a stubborn bolt or a rusted shaft. But Roase's father says they're the hands of a craftsman. His son can turn a hunk of plastic into an immaculate high heel and slip a zipper into a battered boot and make it look new.

"Bill always had to have everything look just the way it came from the factory," Ron Roase said. "I can't do it the way he does. When Bill does it, it's perfect."

Roase learned his craft from Ron, as Ron did from his dad, Ralph. Bill Roase is the third generation to run Ralph's Shoe Service, which left Southdale Center at the end of last year and soon will reopen a mile to the east in Richfield.

The departure from Southdale was a traumatic one. Ralph's Shoe Service was the mall's last original tenant. Bill Roase was shown on TV with his head in his hands, weeping. But the lease dispute that prompted his departure has led to a new location that, in a way, returns the shop to its roots.

Roase's grandfather opened the shoe shop in a row of neighborhood stores at 50th Street and Xerxes Avenue in 1947. Now the shop is back in a homey strip mall at 6623 Penn Av. S. The rent is less than it was at Southdale, and Roase can run his business as he likes, free of rules that required him to do things like open the shop at 4 a.m. for Black Friday.

"I feel great, I feel fabulous," Roase said. "I don't feel like I'm walking on eggshells."

Though the shop probably won't open until the first or second week of March, Roase's customers already are tracking him down. People who visit the store every time they come from Ames, Iowa, pounded on the door last week as Bill and Ron were fixing up the inside of the new store. Someone walked into the Homestead Pickin' Parlor next door and asked when the shoe shop would open, and last week an elderly man came to the door with a pair of shoes in hand.

When the Southdale shop closed in December, all the shop equipment went into Roase's garage in Bloomington. He said he nearly went crazy during the weeks since, without a shop. But he has spent part of the time oiling and cleaning the stitching, heeling and polishing machines he relies on for his work.

Ruth Piano Movers moved the shop equipment to the new location for free last week. All the machinery dates from around 1956, when Ralph's moved to Southdale. The equipment tends to be an industrial green, with the rounded corners and swooping lines of classic mid-century cars. When one of the stitchers quit working, Roase had to pay for an airline ticket and a hotel room for a specialist from Illinois to come and fix it.

But it's the guy who runs the machines that builds a shop's reputation. Roase is a straight-shooter who doesn't take any guff from customers who go against his advice and get a partial repair to a shoe and then come in and complain when it fails. He stands by his work -- if people let him do it right.

Ron Roase said it's been like that from the start. Bill began stocking shelves at the shop on weekends when he was 11 or 12. After he graduated from high school, he tried to get into a photography program at a vo-tech. But the program was full, so he began helping his dad at the shop. When the vo-tech called and said the photo program finally had room, he told them no. He was already hooked. He'd found his profession.

He was slow at the beginning, and a perfectionist. If a customer brought in a boot for repairs, Bill would sew it together so the thread pierced the original needle holes. His father says he's an artist at shaping heels. Ron Roase said he makes a good heel, but Bill makes a better one. Customers wouldn't notice the difference, Ron said, but his practiced eye can spot the difference.

"I was picky," Bill said. "I want it looking really nice. There's a right way and a wrong way. ... I don't have a magic wand, but I will do the best I can."

He likes the variety in the work, and the puzzles. People bring him torn hockey and football equipment, leather jackets that need patches sewn on them, shoes that need lifts and special heels. He's worked on ancient but beloved purses, holsters and belts, and cut boots to insert zippers for people with big calves.

"It's old school," he said. "I like taking something broken or old and making it new. Every time I pick up something, it's different.

"People are so appreciative. There aren't a lot of us going on in the business. People say to me, 'What are we going to do when you're gone?' I tell them, 'I'm not dead yet.'"

At 53, he has a while to go before moving on. Both of his parents still help out at the shop, and he thinks most of his old customers will follow him to the new location. His new website had 80 hits the first day.

So he'll stand behind the counter, selling shoelaces in pairs -- "Do you buy one shoe? Do you buy one sock?" he asks customers who ask for a single lace -- and teaching people how to polish shoes. It seems a lost art, he said. He'll hand over repaired shoes that customers sometimes try to hand back, thinking they look too good and belong to someone else.

And he'll answer to "Ralph." All the time. A name change is not in the offing.

"Bill's? Hell, no," he said with a grin. "I'm the closest they're going to get to Ralph."

Roase will post the shop's opening day on his website, www.ralphs-shoeservice.com.

Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380 Twitter: @smetan

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