When the front door opens, the rhythmic clunk churning from the back of the small shop at 250 College St. is so loud it nearly overwhelms the jingle of bells overhead.
The bells’ twinkle brings Richard Purpora striding forward from the store’s bowels, nimbly weaving among towering stacks of jars and cans, piles of leather and scraps of rubber, and bits of belts and buckles. A partial divider covered with newspaper clippings and glossy autographed photos spans most of the shop’s width, blocking the source of the thumping from view. Purpora hesitates for just a moment, looking at his own bare arms, smudged with oxblood, the fingers blackened, the nails short and a little jagged, before offering his hand for a shake.
Purpora is the owner of New Haven’s Star Shoe Repair Co., which has occupied the same glass storefront, crammed full of eclectic footwear, since the 1970s. Before taking up its current post across from the Shubert Theater, the company, which was started by Purpora’s grandfather, occupied the corner lot now taken by Samurai Restaurant. It was there, in 1931, that Mariono Purpora hauled a 1917 Singer industrial sewing machine and a finisher he bought used — a hulking contraption manufactured by the American Shoe Machinery Co. — to set up his shop.
Mariono Purpora started Star Shoe Repair in the midst of the Great Depression, and it’s no real news that tough times have returned. Despite the hardship that generations of mom-and-pop businesses face across our nation replete with chain stores, Purpora manages to stay afloat. But amid the constant turnover of New Haven businesses, Star Shoe Repair has always done well, and ironically, the current economic crisis has actually bolstered business, according to Purpora.
“Now, with the economy the way it is, you have a lot of people who are watching their spending,” he says. “To them, it’s worth fixing — investing $10 or $15, even if the shoe was only $30.”
Michelle Reid ’07 is just such a customer. The Yale grad who now works downtown has brought in two pairs of leather pumps passed on to her by a friend.
“They’re not anything high class, but they’re perfect for work,” she says. “Why throw them away?”
Of course, many shoes today are not made with repair, so much as repurchase, in mind. Cheap shoes made with flimsy plastic and one-piece soles are not as easy to work on as sturdy, traditionally built shoes, but Purpora points out that new types of solvents and adhesives allow repair of even the most feeble specimen.
* * *
In Purpora’s lair — perhaps better described as “layer” — everything is heaped into mountains whose leather strata (cordovan, buff, black, beige) alternate with veins of rubber filings and grayish shavings. His finishing machine, a beast hunched in the corner, is the source of the enormous racket. Outsized leather belts power a number of blades and wheels, all lined up on a spindle like some enormous deadly shish kebab. Purpora deftly gestures to each spinning tool, explaining that the machine has been “like a horse,” clumping away for generations on little more than a regular oiling. Purpora uses the assortment of discs — for buffing, grinding, polishing and cutting — to fix up to 30 pairs of shoes a day, a rate that changes with the seasons. And when the hide belts need repair from stretching or cracking over time, Purpora simply fixes them too, cutting and resizing the strips just like any other belt that comes through the shop.
The machine has been running continuously since the thirties, handed off from Purpora’s grandfather to his uncle, Frank, in 1952, and becoming Richard’s when Frank passed away on Christmas morning 2007, after battling leukemia. As Purpora uses his thumb to polish dust and grey filings of the machine’s plaque, revealing its manufacture date (Feb. 27, 1930), he says he agreed to take over the family business three days before Frank’s death.
“And if I pull through,” Frank had declared, “I’ll help you.”
Frank Purpora, his nephew asserts, could fix anything.
“He was the smartest man I knew, and I liked to be around the shop with him, learning,” Purpora reminisces.
Starting at age 14, Richard Purpora picked up the trade, little by little.
“Today, I try to be like him. Any time I had trouble with something I couldn’t tackle, I bring it to him. He was a very, very hands on person. I’m the same way.”
* * *
Judging by the New Haven Advocate’s “Best of New Haven” plaques — a matching series awarded to Star Shoe Repair under Frank and then under Richard — which hang on the wall, Richard Purpora is doing a pretty good job of picking up where his uncle left off. The quality of service, however, is not the only thing that remains the same for Star Shoe Repair Co. since Frank left it to Richard.
“If it was ever possible for him to walk back into the store again, he’d see I haven’t changed anything,” Purpora says. “His bench over there, I don’t work at his bench. The way he left stuff, I haven’t touched it. I’m still not ready to do that.”
Likewise, the clientele remains constant.
“I have some of the same customers now who have been coming here for over 35 or 40 years,” he says.
These customers include doctors, judges and other New Haven professionals. A lawyer told Richard at Frank’s wake that he had been a customer for decades. Frank would keep pictures of loyal customers, who were also friends, hanging on the shop’s bulletin boards and walls. The newspaper-covered divider features clips about Star Shoe Repair, an ad from the 1930s when heel plates cost 83 cents, and more photos of clients. Among them are former School of Architecture Dean Cesar Pelli and Marie Osmond, one of many famous performers who had found themselves in a podiatric pinch across the street at the Shubert Theater.
“And [University] President [Richard] Levin,” says Purpora. “His wife comes in here all the time with his shoes and hers.”
Jane Levin said in a recent phone interview that she appreciates Purpora’s kind manner and the accommodating service at Star Shoe Repair.
“He knows who I am,” she exclaimed. “He does a beautiful job. Why would I go anywhere else?”
* * *
Deftly navigating through his labyrinthine shop, Purpora demonstrates the rest of his tools. The leather flies through a crank that planes off thickness, melts through a wheel that cuts it like butter. Watching Purpora’s fingers come dangerously close to the whirring blades is not for the faint of heart.
“All of these are antiques,” he waves his hands. “They work perfectly.”
The shop’s perpetual clutter seems to be another legacy from Frank Purpora. And yet, Richard knows the location of everything, including the latest customer’s pair of shoes. He tells the story of a fellow cobbler who harassed his uncle about the mess, saying “Frank, you come into my shop and you could eat off the floor.”
Richard relishes recounting Frank’s snappy reply: “Shoe-makers that have time to clean don’t have any shoes to work on.”
“Years ago, my uncle used to have a sign in here: ‘Ladies heels finished in three minutes, or they’re free.’ Of course, there were five of us working here back then.”
Now that the business only supports one full-time worker, Purpora can no longer offer such a guarantee. Every time the door’s jingle is heard above the sound of machinery, he must come up front to meet a new customer, so his work is frequently interrupted. Sometimes, he comes back at night to work with no distractions.
“I’ll come back after supper and work from 10 o’clock at night to 12, sometimes one if I’m not done with the next day’s work. And my wife helps me out too.”
Christine does what Purpora calls “ripwork”: the stitching and sewing of belts and handbags. And like their father, Pupora’s two sons have also taken to frequenting the shop at a young age, leading him to hope for a generation Four.
* * *
As if on cue, the bells ring and a man enters the shop, apologizing for having forgotten the red ticket stubs that match the labels Purpora affixes to incoming footwear. No matter for Purpora, who is gone only a second before returning with two shiny pairs of men’s oxfords.
“They look great!” his customer beams. “Like they’ve had a makeover — I need you to work your magic on me!”
Purpora beams back and settles down into an antique wooden chair.
For Purpora, preservation, of both shoes and dreams, has become a way of life. To a man who works on the same equipment his grandfather used, and who spends his life repairing things that many folks might just as easily trash, our throwaway culture might be jarring. When the recession ends, will people just go back to throwing away their shoes once again?
“Probably,” Purpora says. “Some will.”
But some won’t. And that is what matters to this mender of soles. As long as there are a few people still coming in to have their shoes fixed, it is enough for Purpora.
“Not something I’ll ever be a millionaire from, but something I’ll be able to live off of. And to keep his dream alive,” he says, gesturing to Frank’s obituary on the wall, “that’s what’s important to me.”
When asked if he if ever gets antsy to switch careers, Richard Purpora, who had a smattering of other technical jobs before taking over his uncle’s business permanently, answers in the spirit of Frank, for whom “this shop was his life.”
And after all, there is no use in throwing away something that, though old, is still perfectly good.