Fred Ruvolo, the last cobbler left on the North Fork, uses the same hammer today that he had when he started in his profession at age 14.
It’s tradition, just like the antique machinery that clicks and clacks in his downtown Riverhead shop each day. The shelves in his cramped space are stuffed with odds and ends of all shapes and sizes: nails and toe protector plates and various bits of metal.
The glue pot on the workbench melded with the table itself ages ago. It’s now less a pot than a mound of decades-old glue piling up in a grotesque, goopy, yellow mountain.
“That’s part of being in the repair business,” the 65-year-old said, a constant grin glued to his face. “You never know when something’s going to come up that’s going to be handy for you.”
Shoe repair has been Mr. Ruvolo’s life since he was a child. Now, as the last of a slowly dying breed, Mr. Ruvolo is celebrating his 45th year in business at the Village Cobbler Shoppe on Griffing Avenue in Riverhead.
Like other craftsmen, Mr. Ruvolo started as an apprentice, in his case for a friend’s uncle who owned a repair shop. He would work every Saturday and instead of a salary, he was paid whatever his mentor “thought he was worth for the day.”
“There was only two things that were guaranteed for the day: that he was going to drive me back and forth and that he was going to feed me lunch,” Mr. Ruvolo laughed. “The rest of the paycheck was a mystery.”
His apprenticeship ended, the budding shoemaker opened his own store on Roanoke Avenue in 1971, moving to the shop’s current location in 1976. The shoe-finisher machine, a long spinning rod of buffing and sanding tools, is the only equipment that remains from that original shop.
“It’s a pretty important machine,” he said. “You couldn’t be a shoemaker without it.”
But don’t think the rest of his other machinery is any more modern. Much of the other equipment is also antique, acquired from other shoemakers whose businesses shuttered. A red finishing machine in the back came from the Fiore Shore Repair Shop in Mattituck. Mr. Ruvolo said it’s his duty to carry on the tradition of the other cobblers who are long gone.
But there’s much more than shoes at the Village Cobbler Shoppe.
“It’s not just shoe repair,” Mr. Ruvolo explained. “It’s fixing belts, fixing wallets, fixing pocketbooks, fixing car parts, fixing tennis nets, fixing trampolines, fixing all sorts of things people don’t know where to go [with].”
Part of the reason the shop has thrived is the do-it-yourself culture on the North Fork, he said. Farming families in the area are notorious for keeping the same items for years, choosing to repair rather than replace. That ethos is also prevalent among the area’s rising retiree population.
The cobbler takes a certain kind of delight in showing off his observational skills. He’s had decades to practice reading into people’s lives based on their shoes.
“I’m like a forensic detective a lot of the time,” he joked.
Someone with food oil on the soles of their shoes? Probably a waiter who walks through the kitchen. The wear and tear on a construction worker’s shoes? Very distinctive, Mr. Ruvolo said. One look at a person’s gait and he can tell if they have flat feet.
Many of the items he repairs have sentimental value: a parent’s belt made to fit an adult child or a beloved pair of lucky dress shoes used by a lawyer as a good luck charm for all his cases. One woman brought in the boots in which she’d scaled the Andes. Another regular customer comes from Italy to have him fix her shoes, Mr. Ruvolo said.
“I kind of like being able to refurbish things and make them better,” he said. “In every job there’s a gratification in being able to take something that was totally wrecked and bring it back to life.”
He bemoans the “disposable society” he believes our culture has become. Mr. Ruvolo said he hopes he’s making the world a better place in some small way by giving a few items a little more longevity before they’re tossed in the trash.
But it never gets old, he said. Each day, each new repair, is a challenge. And after nearly five decades, Mr. Ruvolo doesn’t intend to stop.
“[I hope I can be] picked off the floor one day when it’s time to retire,” he said, laughing. “If I died in the shop I would be perfectly happy. I would feel like I’ve lived a fulfilled life.”