LIHUE — The moment Ray Duarte opened the front door of The Shoe Repair Shop at 9 a.m sharp, there were already two women waiting outside: one with a suitcase and one with a pair of worn construction shoes.
Duarte told the first woman her suitcase would be ready in two weeks — or when he gets around to it. As for the pair of construction boots, Duarte immediately shook his head and told that woman to buy a new pair.
“These shoes are junk,” he told her. “Cannot fix ‘em ‘cause it was all glued together.”
For 40 years, Duarte has owned and operated The Shoe Repair Shop. But he admits the shoe repair business, as a whole, is slowly disappearing because of “junk” shoes like the ones the woman brought in first thing Tuesday morning.
He learned the trade on the Mainland and brought his skills back to the Garden Isle. He refuses to show anyone else how to repair shoes the way he does.
After all, that would only create competition for his business.
“We’re the only shoe repair business. But because of like what that lady brought in, junk shoes like that, the shoe repair business is going downhill,” Duarte said. “It’s all just like glued-on stuff. People want lightweight shoes; they don’t want the heavy stuff. But when you get into lightweight materials, they don’t last long. When you have just glued on materials, there’s really no foundation in the shoe.”
The sole of the shoe is the soul of the shoe to Duarte. Without a good foundation, there’s no hope for a future.
Duarte’s shop is now on Hardy Street, but he opened his first location back in 1976 where the Chinese restaurant, No. 1, is now on Kuhio Highway, next to 7-Eleven. When Hurricane ‘Iwa struck in 1982, that all changed.
“The hurricane blew that building down,” Duarte said. “Then I went to Kukui Grove, but then Kukui Grove started to get expensive, so I came here.”
Because of the shop’s strong foundation within the Lihue community, Duarte’s doors have stayed open — mainly due to loyal customers like Tania Perneel and Matthew Laguna.
“I’ve been a customer for over 26 years,” Perneel said. “We’ve come and put in a couple pairs of shoes or a bag; you know, small repairs, but still. He’s there for me. He’s the only guy and he’s reliable. It’s on time. When he says to come back in a week, it’s ready to go and the customer service is great.”
Upon hearing Perneel’s sentiments, Duarte yelled, “She has no other place to go!”
Laguna came into the shop with Perneel to get his shoes stretched out. A size 12, Laguna explained that the shoes he bought at the store were size 11 and the store’s employees said the pair would stretch out over time.
“Those stores don’t know nothin’ about stretching shoes,” he said to Laguna as he began immediately working on the pair.
Laguna, a native of New York, loves coming to the shop to get his shoes repaired and adjusted, but also because he enjoys talking to Duarte.
“(Duarte) lived in New York, just like me,” Laguna said. “My dad, God rest his soul, used to get his meat from one place, his fruit from another and the rest of his groceries from another. Now, you can just go to one place for all your shopping. But here, this is where I go to get my shoes fixed.”
Depending on the shoe, purse or suitcase, the time to repair each item varies. For Duarte, a lot depends on the relationship between the customer and himself.
“It all depends how I feel; depends on the customer, too,” Duarte said. “You know, good customers can get them back the next day. Bad customers take, maybe, two weeks. There’s a line over here; I have to tell people to wait in line. I get a steady amount of work.”
While he doesn’t keep track of the number of customers he gets in the shop each day, Duarte told The Garden Island that the flow of customers is “constant.”
Consistent business may be hard to come by in the shoe repair industry, but Duarte has other avenues in business other than just shoe repair, although repair remains his biggest source of income.
“We do all kinds: I make belts, I make gun cases, knife cases, I also repair purses and suitcases. I’ve always been doing stuff like that.”
While paying at least $10.50 to repair a shoe might sound steep, Perneel sees it as money well spent.
“There’s some pieces that you want to keep, that you’re attached to,” she said. “And that can’t be replaced.”
With a good foundation, any shoe can be salvaged. As for The Shoe Repair Shop, it doesn’t appear to be wearing out anytime soon.
As Duarte shuffles shoes around his cabinets behind the front desk, he finds a pair of exceptionally worn slippers.
“See these slippers? These go in the trash. There’s a lot of shoes that you can’t really fix,” Duarte said. “That’s the bad part about the business. You can always fix cowboy boots because they have a welting. Shoes that last a long time today, they last about a year or two.”