Decades of shoe repair at Modern Shoe Hospital
Modern Shoe Hospital owner Kevin Wright at work. — Photo by Gary Hebbard/The Telegram
One of the oldest businesses on Duckworth Street is the one with “Modern” in its name. Modern Shoe Hospital (244 Duckworth St.) owner Kevin Wright followed in his father’s footsteps in the business, which still handles several hundred items a week, despite the shoe industry’s increasing disposability, he tells The Telegram.
Who opened the Modern Shoe Hospital and when?
My dad’s uncle, Ernest Winsor, and another uncle, the two of them. Ernest, he learned his trade up in Montreal, and then he came back here and opened up a repair store. That was back in the ’20s. So then, during the Second World War, my dad’s family moved to St. John’s from Lumsden, and that’s when one of his uncles offered him a job working at the Modern Shoe Hospital.
What year was that?
In around ’42 or ’43. I can’t be precise about that. But I know he was working with a construction company at first, my dad was, and they were working down here in the harbour, and he almost got flattened by a load of rocks that was being dumped on the construction site, and when he told his uncle about it, his uncle said, “Well, b’y, Leslie, why don’t you come and work for me?” So he came in and got involved in the business then, my dad, Les Wright.
When did you become involved?
I started working here on Saturdays. I was probably, oh, 16, 17. In high school, basically. On Saturdays I’d come down and work with my dad. He had a co-worker then, Mr. Ron Stokes, and we kept with that after high school, and I started at university. Between classes — sometimes at MUN you’d have classes in the morning, two classes, and then no more until late in the afternoon or maybe no more for the day — I’d come down here, then, and work the rest of the day with my dad.
Has the shop always been here on Duckworth Street?
No. Mr. Winsor started on Water Street, up near Steers Cove originally, the first Modern Shoe Hospital. Then they opened another one on Duckworth Street, but further down, across from the War Memorial. That’s where my dad started working, during the war. In ’51, Ernest and my dad purchased this building between them. When Ernest retired, he sold his partnership for shares to my dad. So this building, the business has been here since 1951.
So more than 60 years. Whenever I visit this place it seems like a piece of St. John’s history. Are there any other shoe repair places in town?
Very few now. I can remember when I started here, there was at least half a dozen fellas. There was one in the Avalon Mall. My dad’s cousin, he operated another branch of the Modern Shoe Hospital on Water Street, across from Bowring’s, and then there was a couple of local guys, a fella Doyle up on Liverpool Avenue. Al Doyle. There was Williams over on Flower Hill, and oh, who else? Constantine’s, Mr. Garland, just off Freshwater Road. He used to do a lot of skate sharpening, more so than shoes though. There was probably six to eight places around town by the time I started working here.
Why the decline, and how has the Modern Shoe
Hospital been able to stick around?
What I hear from people of, say, my dad’s generation, their kids weren’t interested in taking over the business, and probably would do better in government jobs or you had better benefits. It’s not easy for small business to survive in the economic climate we’re in these days. We’re fortunate, I suppose, that so many guys have retired and nobody’s taken it up, because if there was enough places it’d be very difficult to compete. But most of the people that were involved in this, like I said, they’ve retired, or they’re only semi-involved now. They’re probably working out of their homes or wherever.
What about the shoe buyer? Are we too quick to throw away shoes today rather than getting them fixed?
That’s part of the problem, see. And it’s not necessarily the buyer so much as you’re limited in your options, because the manufacturers, there’s a certain element of a throwaway mentality in the manufacturer’s mindset, too. They’re making stuff, they’ll life it. Like some of the foams they’ll use for the outsole of the shoe, it’s polyurethanes. They can give it a life — I’ve heard stories of people saying they bought a pair of shoes, they liked them so much they bought another pair and left them in the box, put them under the bed for when the first pair started to go or wear out. A year or two years later, the first pair start to give out, so they take the new pair that they bought as a spare out of the box, and the first time they wear them, the soles start falling apart. And so it’s not from wear, it’s from time. There’s a time thing built in. It’s hard to believe that they can accomplish that, but it’s possible. From what we’ve seen here, like I said, the shoe hasn’t been exposed to the elements. It hasn’t been exposed to ultraviolet or any kind of solvents or anything that would break down the material, but just sitting in a box under the bed for a couple of years, two or three years, and next thing you know, you take them out and the soles are falling apart.
How many shoes do you handle in a given week here?
Oh, man. Several hundred pairs. Well, I mean, it’s not just shoes. There’s purses, there’s hockey equipment — on any given day, it could be 80 individual items, 80 customers.
What’s the most common repair job that you have to do?
The high-heeled tips on ladies’ shoes, the stiletto-type heels (he pulls a pair from a shelf), these type of tips, we do a lot of these. A lot of stitching, velcro replacement. The velcro straps on some of the shoes and sneakers, the velcro wears out, and you’re doing a fair bit of that. The soles and heels — again, now as much as you used to, like with the men’s leather soles and heels, because the tendency now, like I said, it’s mostly rubber and vinyl or polyurethane foams and stuff. It lasts a fairly long time, for the most part. Some of the things you see happening, too, with the really tough rubber soles, the uppers start to give out before the soles wear out. (He pulls a pair of boots from a shelf.) You get some of this type of stuff, the carbon rubbers, that stuff is so durable, a lot of times before the sole’s actually worn out, the uppers are starting to split up and crack. For me, looking at it, I look at the upper and say, “Hmm, well, if it’s deteriorated badly, you’re probably better putting your money toward another pair.” Because they’re difficult to repair, the uppers, and make it look good. When they get beyond a certain point, it’s probably not cost-effective to do much with the upper. We do a lot of work boots and stuff, too, because iron workers and fellas that are in the construction trades, they’re pretty hard on their footwear. We do a lot of resoling on their boots. But again, now, they’re not using the real hard carbon rubber. They’re using more of a neoprene foam, which is cushiony, and soft compared to carbon rubber. You do end up repairing a fair number of those, because the soles do actually wear quicker on those than some of the other types of boots.
You’ve got a couple decades experience now doing this. How has shoemaking changed, from what you see coming into the shop? Are there ways shoes today are better than they were? Are there ways they’re worse?
There’s still shoes made the old-fashioned way, with a Goodyear welt, where the leather sole is actually stitched on. But they’re fewer and far between now. You can buy some really nice ones. I know down at the Gallery they had some really nice Allen Edmonds shoes on sale. … They’re a traditional shoe that was more common when I was working on stuff. … They were made to repair. You’d basically cut the old sole off and glue a new one in place, stitch it around. Same with the heels. The heels were nailed on. You pull off the heel, nail a new one on, and trim it around and polish it up. It’s like a car. You replace the tires when the tires wear down, you don’t throw the car away. But now, some of the footwear, soles wear out, you gotta throw the shoe away. It doesn’t really make sense. Stuff is not being made to be repaired so much. You’ve got to be inventive to come up with ways to fix it.
You mentioned that some of the places that used to be open when you started in the business have closed, because a lot of times the kids weren’t interested. What’s going to happen to the Modern Shoe Hospital?
Well, Jim Whey, he’s been here with me now over 20 years. And my son, Adam, he’s been here going on now six years. They’re interested in continuing the business. They’ve both got mortgages. (Laughs.) So they’ve gotta keep plugging away. I can’t see myself really retiring, much like my dad. When he retired, turned 65, he still used to come down to the shop.
It’s a craft as much as a job, isn’t it?
Yeah. There’s always things you can do.