“The mall was really happy about the idea. It shocked the heck out of me. I didn’t think they would really want to deal with a mom and pop operation,” Chafos said, chuckling as he sat with Jerry Haas in their small, but busy shop this week.
While national retailers like Sears, Montgomery Wards and Herberger’s have closed their doors, Boston Shoe Repair continues to fix Rochester’s soles, heels, zippers, coats, purses and suitcases at the mall.
Their 104-year-old business, one of Rochester’s oldest, marked the golden anniversary of its Apache Mall shop on May 1.
The mall location was a younger sibling of the original downtown Boston Repair shop, which first opened its doors in 1917 at 1 S. Broadway, next to where Michael's Restaurant eventually would be built. In those days, Rochester had 18 or 19 shoe repair shops.
Andy Chafos, Pete's father, joined forces with his business partner, Frank Mammasis, as owners of Boston Shoe Repair in 1921. The pair ran the successful shop with its 10 shoe shine chairs on the busy corner.
The downtown Boston Shoe Repair closed in 1978, but the Apache Mall location has kept hammering along through the decades.
Haas, who has worked with Chafos for 60 years, said Boston Shoe Repair was originally located in what eventually became the Apache Mall’s Food Court area for 10 years. Then the shop moved to where Barnes & Noble now operates for 20 years.
“We were really busy in the ‘70s. We were open late to try to keep up,” said Haas. In 2021, the pair of craftsmen alternate months in the shop. They said they probably wouldn’t still be working, if it wasn’t for that schedule.
They have been tucked into an exterior spot on the north side of the mall, now by Applebee’s, for the past 20 years.
It’s not a high profile space. However, people from throughout southeastern Minnesota and Iowa still make their way to Boston Shoe Repair as one of the few such businesses in the region. Thee Only Shoe Repair on North Broadway, which is an "upstart" at not quite 60-years-old, is the only other shop in Rochester.
Rochester Attorney Mark Utz, a lifelong Boston Repair customer, popped in to drop off a pair of Oxfords that needed new heels on Wednesday afternoon. He remembers his mother taking shoes to the downtown location to be fixed.
“There is no other local business that we have more affection for than Boston Shoe Repair. They represent what all merchants should be,” said Utz.
Customers like Utz have been coming to the shop for decades, with some shoes being repaired five or six times.
Ask Chafos what the secret of their longevity is and he’ll smile and shrug his shoulders.
“We just try to take care of our customers. And we try to give them a few laughs while they are here,” he said.
They also give customers impromptu local history lessons in the cozy shop filled with framed newspaper articles, historic photos of downtown Rochester and bowling trophies from the past. Their shelves also display mementos from celebrities with local ties, like a pair of shoes made for the world's tallest man, Igor Vovkovinskiy, and a signed photo from Chafos's relative, national news broadcaster George Stephanopoulos.
The tools and machines they use have not changed much in the past 100 years. The youngest machine in the shop dates to the 1950s. Their shoe stretchers get more use today than in previous decades when store’s measured and fitted shoes for customers.
In a time of cheap footwear often made with plastic, Haas said that the sad truth is that shoe repair is a dying industry.
“Young people just aren’t learning the trade,” said Haas.
It’s estimated there are fewer than 5,000 shoe repair shops in the U.S. That compares to about 62,000 in the 1940s and 50,000 in the 1970s. When experienced workers like Chaos and Haas retire, there’s not a new generation to take over.
Despite both of them being in their 70s, they have no plans to retire.
“I expect we’ll keep going for as long as we can,” said Chafos as he worked on a pair of bright yellow high heels.