There’s not a cobbler on every street corner today, but the trade isn’t dying altogether.
Being the only shop in town has proven to James Cedillo that there is still a need for his art, though so many shoes these days are cheaply manufactured and intended to be thrown away.
But plenty of people still find use for a cobbler, and Cedillo says many important people in Conway are his customers. Indeed, a former Senator entered the shop Friday with a pair of boots to be mended.
In an interview with the Log Cabin Democrat, the owner and sole employee of the B & H Shoe Repair shop on Van Ronkle Street in Conway tells his history, highlights his craft, and offers an explanation about the man named Henry who sleeps on his storefront bench.
Log Cabin Democrat: How did you get started in your craft?
James Cedillo: I started out as a shoe shine boy in a shoe repair shop in McAllen, Texas. That’s where I started learning the skill. The owner, Bill Rhea, left the business there and came back to his hometown, which is Conway. His wife is Hazel Rhea. He has businesses in Conway, Hot Springs, (and three Texas towns). He used to export boots and shoes to Mexico.
LCD: Is this your business now?
JC: Yes, one day he called me and said he was going to retire. He asked if I wanted to take it over. I said yes, so I came here in September of 1994. Bill asked if I wanted to work for him, lease the business, or buy. He said to just try it for a couple of months, and I said I’d buy it. I’m still paying for it, actually.
[The Rheas owned Bill’s Discount Shoe Store in Conway before Bill Rhea’s retirement. Cedillo said the store was about two doors down from the current storefront on Van Ronkle, and that a lot of locals remember the store. B & H’s address is 1041 Van Ronkle Street.]
LCD: How is business for a cobbler these days?
JC: Business is good. It could be better. The good thing about Arkansas is that a lot of people wear western boots. They’re still made the same way as they always have been.
[Boots are the most common type of shoe repaired by Cedillo.]
LCD: How are you affected by the way shoes are made now, in mass quantity and often of rubber and plastic?
JC: The market has become more throw-away, more economically made. Less expensive. Sometimes they’re made (cheaply) but still expensive because they are selling you the brand. Some shoes from China are not quality and also not expensive.
LCD: What do you do to offset the newer market?
JC: I do a lot of orthopedic inserts and shoes for (Conway Human Development Center). I do build-ups for them and make shoes orthopedic. I repair purses, belts, backpacks, and boat covers for Mastercraft Boats here in Conway.
[The shop also shines and sells shoes.]
LCD: What kinds of materials do you use to repair shoes?
JC: Nails, leather, glue and sewing.
LCD: Are you the only shoe repair shop in town?
JC: Yes, I’m the only one in town. There used to be one close to the interstate on Oak Street. It was there about five years. It left about three years ago. There was one around the corner from here before I came here in 1994. I have the monopoly now.
LCD: There’s a man who stays on the bench outside your shop. Is he a friend of yours?
JC: That’s Henry. He used to live nearby with his mother. The bench is his post. He doesn’t have a place to go. I don’t run him off, he’s a friend actually. The way he dresses, he can attract customers. I say he’s my greeter and that I stole him from Walmart. He says “Hello, how are you,” and says goodbye when customers leave and tells them to have a nice weekend. He’s a good guy. We say you can’t say he’s eccentric. If he had any money, then he’d be considered an eccentric man.
(Staff writer Courtney Spradlin can be reached by email at email@example.com or by phone at 505-1236, or on Twitter @Courtneyism. To comment on this and other stories in the Log Cabin, log on to www.thecabin.net. Send us your news at www.thecabin.net/submit)