Experienced cobbler gives new life to worn, broken footwear
With machines, tools, shoelaces and insoles lining every wall, the shop is quiet and chilly until Bill Gossett, 47, of Marietta, flips on lights, a fan and the coffee maker at about 10 a.m. each morning.
He unlocks the door to Cobbler John’s with steps down into the basement of the old Dime Bank building, and the bells at the top of the door jingle as he hops to work.
“This week marks 26 years that I’ve been doing this,” said Gossett. “Actually (Wednesday) is the day he brought me on. It started out when I was 19… There was a sign in the shop window and my mom told me to go put in an application.”
As the coffee dripped he explained how the former owner, Cobbler John William Bolen, became a father figure to Gossett.
“He talked to me for a few minutes and he brought me back a few days later,” Gossett said. “I asked him, ‘What did you hire me for?’ and he says ‘Cuz you didn’t know anything.'”
Gossett had known basic parts of a shoe: the sole, tongue, laces and eyelets, and that was all.
“And so I come back in and he wants me to try and do some stuff and he says he’ll keep me working,” Gossett explained. “He says there were other people he might have hired, but the problem is if someone knows something about shoe repair you can’t teach them the right way because they already have their own ideas… He wanted a blank slate.”
The vocation also became a blank slate for Gossett over the years, as it allowed him to redefine who he was as a person while learning the trade.
“He and his wife Peg were very good to me. When I came in I was troubled but he saw something in me,” said Gossett. “They even lent me the money for the down payment on my house and I worked that off here at the shop.”
And though the shop hasn’t changed much besides ownership since Gossett began on Nov. 15, 1989, he said he has.
“I used to be a racist skinhead. I was angry and had a lot of that in me from when I was a kid and it channeled into being racist,” he explained. “But this place changed me, and the music played in here changed me.”
He said the computer he keeps in the shop is for one thing only, Cajun Zydeco.
“You can’t continue to be racist and love the sound of old black men singing,” he said, turning up the volume.
To the moving beat he then bounces back and fourth, between tearing off a worn out sole on one shoe, brushing on glue, cutting through rubber and leather and stitching on new treads.
“I was never diagnosed, but I had (Attention Deficit Disorder) as a kid,” he explained after jumping from taking a phone call, to talking with a customer, then back to stitching a new buckle on a Birkenstock. “This keeps that in check because I can go from job to job.”
And the jobs he brings in are from miles around.
“There’s not another shoe repair store for more than 75 miles,” he said.
But don’t take it just from Gossett’s mouth. The customers filtering in Thursday were from all over. One drove in from Sistersville, W.Va., just to get the first cowboy boots his wife ever got him repaired.
“There’s sentimental value to these, and you don’t just get rid of cowboy boots,” said David Kelly, 61, the owner of the shoes. “She bought these for me over 25 years ago and he’s the best, he’s who you can trust to keep them going.”
Trust is a big part of why others keep coming back to the shop, said Karen Empfield, of Parkersburg.
“I’ve been coming here for 30 years,” she says, this trip bringing in a simple sewing job, where stitching in leather on a purse needs to be redone. “You know the quality you get here, you trust them and know it’s not going to cost an absurd amount.”
That’s the same thing the next in line, Larry Carpenter, 49, of Reno, said.
“He’s the best around for sewing things on and he’s not outrageous with prices,” added Carpenter. “Plus everybody likes him.”
Between the door’s jingle of a customer coming down the steps, Gossett’s hands are always busy.
One moment they’re oiling a machine built in the 1950s that punches nylon thread into the bottom of a work boot.
The next they’re pushing in lemon wood pegs to fill old holes in a heel before a new rubber sole goes on.
“If I think I can repair it I’ll take the job,” he says, explaining that his work isn’t limited to just boots.
On Thursday, he took on two purse repairs, patches for a biker’s vest, and Beth Cox, of Ritchie County, W.Va., picked up tennis shoes that Gossett had put an orthopedic buildup on.
“If the job comes in, it goes out green,” he said. “I’ll take whatever work I think I can do well, or I won’t charge you for it. If I’m not confident that it will stay together, I won’t charge you.”
And he’ll work into the night, between 8 and 10 p.m., especially this season, since October through December are his most in-demand months.
“There has been a shoe shop in this location since 1921,” he said. “And that’s how it should be…you come in and get taken care of and you know what you’re getting is quality.”
At a glance
About Cobbler John’s Shoe Repair Service:
¯ Since 1921, the same door below the old Dime Bank building has been the entrance to a shoe repair shop on Second Street.
¯ First known as Davis and Davis Shoe Repair, the shop has changed hands a few times before its most recent owner Bill Gossett, 47, of Marietta.
¯ Gossett bought the business from his mentor, John William Bolen, on Nov. 1, 2010.
¯ Bolen named the shop Cobbler John’s when he purchased the business in 1977 from Beaman Goudy.
¯ Goudy purchased the shop in the 1940s.
Source: Bill Gossett, owner of Cobbler John’s Shoe Repair Service.