Shoe repairman keeps family tradition alive

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (AP) — At age 14, Sam Pante had worn down his pair of Frye boots to the point where he needed a professional to repair them. Luckily, he didn't need to look far to find one.

"I told my dad, 'I need new soles on these,'" says the owner of Shoe Doctor repair service. "He said, 'Well, put them on.'"

Pante's father, like his grandfather, great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather, was a shoe repairman, with a shop in Gary. Pante had spent time in his father's shop since he was a toddler and worked there after school.

"'I might not leave you anything, but I'm going to leave you a trade. You'll never go hungry,'" Pante remembers his father telling him, his two brothers and his sister. "I was using a hammer and things from the time I was 7 years old, standing on a crate up to the shoe jacks."

Despite his early introduction to the trade, a teenage Pante was dismayed after replacing his boot's soles.

"I finished the job and I was very happy, smiling and everything. I went and put the boots on and I couldn't wear them," he told The Herald-Times ( ). "I said, 'Dad, I can't wear my boots, they don't fit.'"

Pante's father told him he needed to take apart the shoes to figure out what he had done wrong.

"He allowed me to do that basically on my own," Pante said. "It's a good experience to understand how something has to be done by actually wearing it. Doing something on your own that you're going to put back on."

Six years after opening Shoe Doctor on Pete Ellis Drive, and two years after opening a second Shoe Doctor in Columbus, 55-year-old Pante still follows many of his father's lessons.

Customer service is as important as a quick turnaround, according to Pante. And any shoe that leaves the shop gets a free shine.

"One thing my father always taught us is it needs to go out of here looking better than it came in," he said. "People bring it in for you because they like the way it feels. So when it leaves here, it has to leave the same way as it felt when they brought it in, except it has new material so you can wear it out again."

Prices for repairs start at $8 and are set differently for every shoe based on the work needed. Shoe Doctor replaces soles and heels, repairs leather items such as belts and briefcases, mends sewing work and fixes zippers.

"I tell anybody there's nothing I can't do in here in less than two hours," Pante said. "Anything a customer wants to wait for, I will put out for them as quick as I can."

The small shop in the Williamsburg Plaza is lined wall to wall and ceiling to floor with dozens, if not hundreds, of pairs of shoes. The scent of shoe polish and dye wafts out the door, which Pante says some customers tell him brings back fond memories of visiting shoe repair shops in their youth.

"Others say, 'Oh, can you open the door, there's too many vapors or fumes in here. How can you stand it?'" he said. "I say, 'Why do you think I have a smile on my face all the time?' That's not why," he is quick to add, laughing.

The store is also capable of repairing jewelry, purses and even flat tires.

"I tell them that I can repair just about everything except for a broken heart," Pante said. "And then, I'll try my darndest."

Sometimes work is more complex and on a strict deadline. When a production of "A Chorus Line" came to the Indiana University Auditorium, Pante received a call asking if the Shoe Doctor could replace the soles on six pairs of shoes in fewer than five hours.

The shoes were finished before the curtain rose, and that night, Pante watched their owners dance from the audience.

Pante also made the shoes for all the Whos down in Whoville for a Bloomington production of "How the Grinch Stole Christmas."

He says his favorite pair was for Cindy Lou Who, who needed a pair of pink leather slippers with curled toes.

"It's something you're going to have to like to do to be able to get into it," Pante said. "If you don't like dealing with the public, it's not a job for you. If you don't like the smell of feet or shoes, it's not the job for you. It is a specialty, and not everybody can do it."

Before settling at Shoe Doctor, Pante said he wore a lot of hats — which he can also repair.

He spent time as a boilermaker, auto mechanic, engineer and welder. He owned a hair and tanning salon, built hickory wood furniture and worked for a chiropractor as a massage therapist and intake assistant.

"I've combined everything that I have done in my life and put it all together to be able to develop Shoe Doctor," Pante said. "I have really never, never planted my feet solid enough to say that, 'Yeah, this is what I do.' And when I did this, it was like everything just seemed to be right. Everything came together."

Pante says expansion is in Shoe Doctor's future, and maybe one day a Shoe Doctor line of shoes.

Though his father died in 1992, Pante now has the same chapped and dye-stained hands of a shoe repair shop owner.

"I'd love for him to be able to see it," Pante said, his eyes filling with tears. "He'd be very proud of me."

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