MARION — Growing up, Rich Foens remembers 13 shoe repair shops within three square blocks of each other in downtown Davenport. His parents’ shop, where he learned his trade, was one of them.
Now, 71 years after he first started helping his father at age 9, his business, Smitty’s Shoe Repair, is one of the last shoe repair shops in the area. And on Nov. 1, Foens plans to hang up his tools and retire.
He’s not accepting any more work, focused on finishing up the last few shoe repairs before he locks the doors for the last time.
Foens has owned Smitty’s in Uptown Marion since he bought it from the Smith family 35 years ago, in 1983. Before that, he owned a shoe repair shop in Tipton for 25 years.
Now, with the lease up on his storefront in Marion, he decided six decades of owning a small business and repairing shoes was enough. At age 80, he is ready to retire.
“My head says, I can still do this. But my body says, ‘You’re nuts!’ ” he said, laughing. “I love fixing shoes. I never went to work a day in my life. This is a hobby that has provided a living.”
The Marion storefront, with its green and orange carpet and walls of family photos, hasn’t changed much over the years. Foens does what work he can from a green chair in the front of the shop — “This is my spot,” he said — when he doesn’t need to use one of the specialized shoe repair machines in the back of the shop.
“What I’m going to miss are the good friends and the acquaintances I’ve met,” he said.
From his chair, he can keep an eye on the door, ready to greet customers as they come in. Some have been taking shoes to him for decades.
“For 25 years he’s been doing my shoes,” said David Howland of Galena, Ill.
He used to live in Cedar Rapids and still makes a point to bring his shoes to Foens.
“He shines them, and you look better,” he explained.
Foens said one of his farthest-flung customers is a woman in Seattle. She used to live in Iowa City and still mails her shoes to him when they need repair.
He said he inspires such loyalty with “quality work and friendship,” emphasizing that customer service and building relationships have been the most important ingredients to his success. “If I have made a customer happy, they’ve made my day.”
Mike Brems of Cedar Rapids stopped in to pick up a pair of shoes. He and his parents have been customers for years.
“We’re all in a state of panic,” he said with a laugh. “He’s the magic man. There are not many people who take the time and put in the effort to do this work.”
Word-of-mouth has built Foens’ customer base — he takes only cash or check and doesn’t have a website, Facebook page or even a cellphone. He’s never needed them.
He values making things last, driving a ’97 Chevy pickup to work each day. Many of the machines in his shop are 90 years old. He learned to service them himself, because there are few mechanics left in the area who specialize in shoe stitchers.
One of the machines came from his father’s shop — shoes are something of a family legacy.
“I’m the third generation in the foot industry,” he said.
His grandfather made specially designed shoes and his mother and grandmother both worked for shoe factories in St. Louis. Both his father and uncle had shoe repair shops where Foens started learning the craft when he was a boy, beginning with gluing soles and sweeping up nails.
“It’s not rocket science,” he said, listing the skills he needs: decent hand-eye coordination, people skills and communication and problem-solving skills.
Over the years shoe materials have shifted, making his job harder in many ways. Many shoes now have plastic soles, which he can’t repair. He’s watched some high end shoe producers get bought out by big companies and seen quality go down. More people are buying lower quality, cheaper shoes instead of high quality shoes meant to last for years, he said.
“The shoe factories are making it hard on shoe repairmen,” he said. “About 70 percent of the population has never been in a shoe repair shop.”
He graduated from high school in Davenport in 1956. He was a wrestler, and he’s maintained a passion for the sport his entire life. On the walls of his shop, wrestling memorabilia hold a place of pride. He brags of once fixing NCAA champion wrestler Spencer Lee’s wrestling shoes, taking only an autographed photo in payment.
He’s also repaired more than shoes. He repairs baseball gloves, about 150 a year, and an award on the wall recognized his services to the Marion Fire Department, whose gear he has repaired free of charge for years.
One thing he’s looking forward to in retirement is spending more time with his five grandchildren, including one grandson who is a wrestler. He also might take up furniture finishing — at his own pace, with time for naps when he wants them.
He’s not sad his two children didn’t follow in his footsteps, he said. He’s not sure if his craft will continue, though he said someone who is considering opening a new shop is interested in buying his equipment.
After a lifetime in one career, his advice to younger generations? “Get a job or occupation you enjoy, because going to a job you don’t like is miserable,” he said.
And he’s been anything but miserable in his chosen profession.
“To me, it was fun,” he said. “It was a hobby, and I’ve enjoyed it.”
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