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Heart and Soles: Business builds for fifth-generation shoemaker

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Phil Panté can trace his family’s shoe making pedigree back at least five generations.

He learned the trade from an early age at his father’s work bench in Gary.

“As soon as I could stand on a milk crate, my dad had a hammer in my hand,” he said.

Panté owns the Shoe Doctor store in Columbus, at 2206 Illinois Ave., the former location of Kaiser’s Shoe Repair, which closed in March because the owner, Dan Kaiser, retired.

Panté recently pointed to the wall of his shop, where a fading newspaper article shows a photo of him, at age 15, with his brother, Sam, and their father, Phil Sr., at his father’s shop. An older photograph nearby showed Panté’s great-great-great-great-grandfather from Sicily.

Sam opened the Bloomington store three years ago, and Phil soon followed because the store got very busy. Phil Panté said his brother needs extra help right now because he is recovering from injuries he sustained in a car accident.

Panté said he is still in the startup phase in Columbus and hopes to be in full operation early next year.

For now, the Columbus store is open from noon to 5 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

Panté, 56, also works full time in the shoe repair shop in Bloomington. He works there from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m., sleeps for a few hours, gets back to the shop at 9 a.m. and leaves by 11 a.m. to come to Columbus.

“I love working at night, because I don’t get bothered,” he said with a laugh.

When he returns to or leaves the Columbus store, he usually carries a big, red bag full of shoes.

“I look like Santa Claus every day,” he said with a chuckle.

Panté, who emphasizes that he and his family are Sicilian — not Italian — likes to gab and crack jokes, but he is very serious about his business and his craft.

He said he wants to apologize to the Columbus community for the short hours, but he still is trying to find the proper machinery for the Columbus store so that he can do all the work locally.

Panté said that he thought initially that the Columbus store would be a drop-off and pick-up point and that all the work would be done in Bloomington, but now he is leaning toward doing the work in Columbus because he has more room here.

“I see the potential here,” he said.

As a co-worker recently held on to a show jack, Panté used pliers to pull off the heel of a brown cowboy boot. Behind them, a work bench displayed tools of the trade, including a shoemaker’s hammer, knives and a decades-old Mercury sewing machine.

“This is old school right here,” he said, using significant effort to remove the heel. “But you know what? I still remember how to do this.”

But he was not happy about it, he said.

“That’s why I’m in such a rush to get machinery,” Panté said.

The number of shoe repair stores in the U.S. has remained steady over the past decade, about 5,000 to 7,000, said Mitch Lebovic, spokesman for the Shoe Service Institute of America, a trade group.

World War II, when leather and other goods were rationed, was the zenith of the shoe repair industry, with about 75,000 shops, but the number had steadily declined until the early part of this millennium, Lebovic said. Many shops closed when athletic shoes became popular in the 1970s and 1980s. Cheap imported shoes resulted in other shops kicking the bucket. People who buy $20 shoes, Lebovic said, probably will not pay $30 to have them repaired.

Lebovic said shoe fashion trends also have affected repair shops. When higher heels are in fashion, for example, shoe repair shops do better than when flats are in vogue. The smaller the heel, the more pressure that heel withstands per square inch and the faster its padding needs to be replaced.

Panté said his family has long taken pride in its craft, using the best material it can get to make long-lasting repairs.

“It’s worth the extra little bit to get the good craftsmanship,” he said.

Repairing a woman’s show with a small heel costs $12 and up, while full soles for a Western boot can cost more than $100.

Sure, he said, you can buy a $20 man’s pair of dress shoes or woman’s pair of heels. But if the repair with good materials costs $12, what does that tell you about the original material and craftsmanship? he asked.

Panté repairs cheap plastic heels with more expensive but also more durable and comfortable rubber heels.

He remembered a saying that his father had framed on his shop wall: “The bitterness of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of low price has been forgotten.”

As he stood in his shop in Birkenstocks, Panté said he buys shoes that cost a little more but that last longer, can be repaired more easily and protect his joints.

“I wear quality shoes. I’m on my feet all day,” he said.

The Columbus shop has two additional employees, including Debbie Garrett, a retired postal worker who got a job with Panté after she dropped off a purse for repairs.

Panté said he still gets a thrill out of seeing people’s faces when they pick up a pair of shoes they thought they were going to have to throw away.

And, he said, he enjoys the challenge.

“I’ve done it all my life,” he said.

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