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Fixing a shoe is an art for Llewellyn

Bill Llewellyn uses a trimmer to shape a high heel on a woman's shoe. Steve Gardiner / RiverTown Multimedia1 / 4
Bill Llewellyn enjoys a moment with his grandson Gavin outside Woodbury Shoe Service in the Valley Creek Mall in Woodbury. Llewellyn will close his business on Sept. 14. Submitted photo.2 / 4
The tools of Bill Llewellyn's trade fill his workshop at Woodbury Shoe Service in the Valley Creek Mall. Steve Gardiner / RiverTown Multimedia.3 / 4
Like new, these shoes, repaired by Bill Llewellyn, await pickup by their owners. Steve Gardiner / RiverTown Multimedia.4 / 4

Bill Llewellyn once made a pair of Frankenstein boots for a play at Woodbury High School, but now, after 44 years of repairing shoes, he is ready to close his business, Woodbury Shoe Service in Valley Creek Mall, and walk away on Sept. 14.

"They were putting a play on, and the guy wasn't that tall," Llewellyn said. "They needed me to make some platform boots for him. I had to make him taller than everybody else."

It wasn't difficult for Llewellyn, who has frequently made orthopedic shoes to help people who need a thicker sole on one foot.

In a time when we often refer to a throwaway society, Llewellyn has had no trouble staying busy in the shoe repair business.

"You don't see a TV repairman around anymore," Llewellyn said, "but you see shoe repairmen around because we do more than just fix shoes. We repair jackets, coats, purses, bags and gun cases. We do many things. You have to diversify."

He said people often warned him that repairing shoes was a dying business, but he has learned otherwise.

"People have been saying that to me from day one," he said. "I've been in the business for 44 years and here at the mall for 27 years, and I've been very busy."

After high school, Llewellyn joined the Navy and served three years. When he was discharged, he wanted to learn a business, but didn't want to go to college. He signed up for a trade school in Minneapolis.

"It was a year course," he explained. "You get your basics down. Then you've got to go get a job and get your speed up and go from there. It's a process. You can't just go to school for one year and figure you are going to go open up a shop. That isn't going to happen."

Through his four decades of repairing shoes, Llewellyn has seen many changes. He said shoes used to be repaired in pieces, but no longer.

"This is all molded," he said, holding up a woman's shoe. "To fix it, you have to take it all off and put a new sole on. With the old ones, I could replace a welt, sole or a heel versus when it is all molded, you are going to take the whole thing off, put a midsole on, then put the sole on."

Llewellyn said he appreciates his regular customers. Many have come back frequently throughout the years he has been at the mall.

Helping those people has been a big part of his motivation. He pointed to a repaired shoe and said, "Fixing a shoe like this, that's the art part of it," he said. "I enjoy fixing things so that people can use them again. That's what it's all about."

Running the business has had its challenges. He said he has always worried about the overhead, and in recent years, he has found it more difficult to find the materials he needs to repair the many varieties of shoes that come in his door. No one company has everything he needs.

His workshop is a jumble of sewing machines, spools of thread and shelves of worn shoes waiting his attention. It seems chaotic, but he is comfortable there. He knows exactly where everything is and how to use each tool.

Countdown to retirement

Now, however, he is counting down the days until his retirement.

"I am sure about my decision," Llewellyn said. "It's still difficult to say I am going to give it up after so many years. That's going to be different, but I might as well give it up while I still am healthy and can go do things."

Llewellyn said he and his wife, Lea, a retired postal worker, enjoy traveling.

"We're going to Hawaii in November," he said. "We like going to Florida and California, and we like to spend time boating at the lake."

Closing the business doesn't mean the end of doing repairs. "I might keep the patch machine and the flatbed and do some part-time work," he said. If somebody brings a coat in and wants a zipper in it, I'll do that. That will mostly be for friends, people that we already know. I'll probably do some of that stuff."

Llewellyn said the shoe repair business is "a good trade, and it will be around. The problem is we've got to get younger people in to do it, because we are all getting older. A couple of the area shoemakers are in their 70s and one guy is in his 90s and still doing it. I'm not going to do that," he said, laughing.

Steve Gardiner

Steve Gardiner taught high school English and journalism for 38 years in Montana and Wyoming.  He started working at the Republican Eagle in May 2018.  He focuses on features and outdoor stories.  

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