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Charmed Life

Shoe Biz

Christopher Myers

By Tom Chalkley | Posted 11/20/2002

There are snowball stands and arabber carts that take up less real estate, but Carlo's Shoe Repair Shop in Hamilton might be the slenderest slice of bricks-and-mortar commercial space in Baltimore. Sharing an awning with the Straight Road of Pentecost Church, the tiny storefront at 5422 Harford Road in Northeast Baltimore is easy to miss. I've driven past the place a few thousand times but didn't know it existed until my wife pointed it out last month.

So I drop by to get my briefcase stitched and take the opportunity to stand, midfloor, with arms outstretched. My fingers almost touch both walls. I'm guessing that the floor plan is six feet wide--one for the Natty Boh Book of Bawlmer Records. Front to back, the shop is perhaps 40 feet deep; blind windows on one side suggest that this tunnel-like space was created by filling in a gap between the buildings on either side.

Owner Carlo Griguolo stands some distance behind his worn counter, working while we talk, smiling tolerantly as he pares a crepe heel to fit an old black shoe and then hand-stitches a moccasin upper with an "earth shoe" sole. The wooden shelves are lined, but not loaded, with footwear; Griguolo apparently keeps up with his workload. Some of the wildly impractical items close at hand are surely somebody's sentimental favorites: a pair of brick-red, pointy-toed suede boots with three-inch heels and fringe up the back, and a set of golden slippers with lucite spikes, one of which has torn loose. He gives the strange shoes a thoughtful look. "You do the best you can, that's all," he shrugs.

"I used to make shoes when I was in Italy--from scratch," he says with a soft but unmistakable accent. A native of Abruzzo-Molise in southern Italy, Griguolo emigrated in 1958, at the age of 29, with the aid of an uncle who had come to America decades before. "When I first came to this country I didn't know how to spell my last name," he says, explaining that he rarely needed to sign it before moving to Baltimore. He spent most of his early years here living in Highlandtown and working downtown as an assistant cobbler. On Valentine's Day 1972, he took over the Hamilton shop. He was the fourth shoe repairman to occupy the site. The previous owner had started in 1941; Griguolo guesses that the business is about a century old.

Some of the equipment--all of which came with the store when he bought it--looks like it dates back at least to the Wilson administration. Just behind the counter stands a classic treadle-operated Singer sewing machine with ornate cast-iron legs and, instead of a platform, a tapering metal bar that bears the patina of long use. "It does the job, that's the main thing," Griguolo says, patiently pumping the treadle and demonstrating how the slow-motion machine is perfectly designed for stitching the curved lines of toes and sandal straps. A simple but powerful hand-cranked cutter, used to slice thick sole materials, is mounted on the workbench, as are heavy-duty stitching machines toward the rear of the shop. The jack, a simple, footlike form with its sole flexed toward the ceiling, is mounted on a steel post bolted to the floor. Griguolo can slip a shoe over it and hammer away. "Nobody has this in Italy," he declares, indicating the jack. "All the shoemakers there sit down." He takes a metal object shaped something like an open book with a hole in midspine down from the shelf. He presses it to his knees, showing how this simple lap anvil was used in the old country. "Everything there is by hand, by hand, by hand," he says. Even the utilitarian cash register is an antique. "It doesn't take more than a dollar and ninety-nine cents," Griguolo chuckles.

Although his immediate environment has changed remarkably little over the years, Griguolo at 73 has seen the outside world mutate rapidly. His block of Hamilton's business district now includes three storefront churches and two dollar stores in addition to such such neighborhood pillars as Lakein's Jewelers. Up and down Harford Road, at least three shoe-repair shops have closed over the last 10 or 15 years. In fact, the very concept of shoe repair has taken on something of an old-timey quality. "You can't repair the kind of shoes they make now," Griguolo says matter-of-factly. "When I quit, I can't sell the place because nobody's buying. Nobody's learning shoe repair."

For now, however, he's doing fine, having absorbed customers from the shops that didn't survive. Autumn, with its back-to-school imperatives and the threat of winter slush, is his busiest time of year. Griguolo says that he came to work Sunday for four or five hours without opening the shop, just to catch up.

"But I don't know how long I'm busy," he says with another shrug. Crassly, I suggest that when the time comes to shut down, somebody might pay a nice price for his old sewing machine. The cobbler gives one more shrug. "I might keep it," he says.

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