Shoe Repair Industry Still Kicking At Rodgers' Shoe Service in Little Rock

Cheap, imported shoes are working hard to erase the longstanding shoe repair industry from the map, but a few determined shops still dot the landscape. 

Rodgers’ Shoe Service in Little Rock has been around for about 50 years, according to owner Henry Rodgers.

“It was my dad’s shop until he passed in August of 1995,” he said.

The shop, located on South University Avenue, looks like it was transported from a downtown storefront. Footwear in all conditions sits on almost every surface. One side of the shop has shelves where Rodgers sells shoes, old and new. The other side is home to his repair machinery: sanders, grinders, shiners, stretchers. Signs taped to walls and shelves point out his policies. (“Rush jobs $10 extra.” “No claim check, no shoes.”) A television behind the counter plays an old episode of “Matlock.” Unsurprisingly, the whole place smells like leather. 

Rodgers started learning the trade at age 6. 

“It was interesting, being a kid here,” he said. “You want to be out playing with the other kids, but my dad wanted me in here helping him.”

A typical shoe repair job takes about a week, he said, and he performs all of the work in-house. Cobblestone Shoe & Boot Repair, a 20-year-old shop in Little Rock, outsources its actual repair work. But Rodgers said this practice isn’t the norm.

“I had the option to do that, but I chose not to, because it takes so long,” he said. “Most customers don’t want to wait that long to get their items back.”

Repairs cost anywhere from $5 up to $50 or more. Rodgers’ clientele, he said, ranges from lower income to doctors and lawyers. Business is steady, but it’s not easy to compete with cheap, disposable shoes. 

“I guess about 80 or 90 percent of [shoes] come out of China,” he said. “A lot of it’s throwaway.”

Even on better quality shoes, he said, the soles or other parts might be from China.

“That makes a difference,” he said. “A lot of that stuff can’t be repaired. It used to be when you grind soles, you got dust — that was where the rubber quality was involved. Now, when you sand that off, it turns to liquid.”

Shoes good enough to be repaired tend to be ones that cost more than $100, brands like Johnston & Murphy or Allen Edmonds, Rodgers said. 

Rodgers said he would like to expand his shop and perhaps open more locations.

“I think my shop has something for everyone,” he said. “I don’t cater to any particular segment of the population, and I’d like to have more of the sales in the operation where I can sell more different types of shoes.”

Rodgers’ services, like most other shoe service shops, extend beyond shoe repair. He can also shine and stretch shoes. He can replace wheels and zippers on luggage. He fixes leather jackets, women’s handbags and hats. He can make keys and fill orthopedic prescriptions. 

“It’s just part of being versatile,” he said. “You want to be able to do more than one particular type of thing in this day and time. There’s a demand for it, but there are not too many people that can do it.”

Indeed, the industry has shrunk. Rodgers said that as recently as a decade ago there were more than a dozen shoe repair shops between Little Rock and North Little Rock. Now there are three: his, Cobblestone on Reservoir Road and Southwest Shoe & Luggage Repair on Baseline. One reason they’re disappearing is simply age. The owners retire or die, and no one’s left to take over.

“Younger people aren’t really going into the business,” Rodgers said. “There’s a lot of work involved. They don’t want to do that work; they want to push buttons on a computer.”

The future of his own shop is somewhat uncertain: Rodgers said he’s training someone to eventually take over, but he has no direct heir. Rodgers said the industry’s shrinkage doesn’t mean it’s disappearing, however.

“You’ve got to have something on your feet in the summertime, the wintertime, when the weather changes and the temperature drops, in rain and cold weather,” he said. “People have got to have something on their feet. This will never go away.”