The last cobbler in North Knoxville

Investigations

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — It’s a dying art and skill, the cobbler.

Few young people are entering the profession.

Years ago, at one time in East Tennessee, nearly every community had a shoe repair shop. Dozens were located in Knoxville, alone, yet few remain today.

There are fewer than 7,000 show repair shops in the country, according to the Shoe Service Institute of America. That’s just a fraction of the nearly 60,000 stores that were sprinkled throughout the United States in the 1940s.

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Lots of footwear today is no longer stitched together as it once was because a machine steam presses the soles into the shoe — in half the time it would take to sew it. So, fewer repairs are made.

For the few repair shops that remain open, business is brisk.

One longtime cobbler says he has no plans of calling it quits.

WATE 6 On Your Side’s Don Dare shares the story of a cobbler in Fountain City who says he has no plans of retiring, but, his shop will soon be moving.

Hardy Johnson has been repairing shoes for decades

Shoe repair is a meticulous task and Hardy Johnson has been at it since the early 1940s.

Hardy Johnson has been tapping heels on shoes about all of his life — ever since he was a teenager. He’s 91 now.

Johnson is comfortable and happy with his profession in a room with old, worn out, repairable shoes. First, he started shining shoes working alongside his dad in a downtown Knoxville shop. Happiness is the key to his success. Hardy says if you love what you are doing, you will be successful.

“My father was in it and I started helping him,” Johnson said. “Then as the years went along, he became disabled. I took over the whole thing. It was a great job that I just couldn’t leave.”

For Johnson — who is highly skilled at repairing anything leather — this is not an 8-to-5 job. You have to go beyond the call of duty — even at the age of 91.

“You got to be able to work long hours, mostly. I have worked many an hour overtime. I just love the trade. That’s why I stay here so much. I’d rather be here than home,” he said.

His work home is bursting at the seams with shoes and the robust scents of dye, polish and glue.

Shoe repair shops disappearing

Custom Shoe Rebuilders in Fountain City has been located at several locations. Hardy remembers when there were once six shoe repair businesses just along Broadway.

Since 1953, all have closed in North Knoxville, but one.

“They are disappearing quickly. I think it is too much work for the young people to want to do,” says Hardy’s son, Jim Johnson.

Jim Johnson carries on the family trade that started in the 1920s. As his father worked with his dad as a teen, so has Jim. He now operates the business.

“It’s a pleasure,” Jim Johnson said. “He and I only had one disagreement in the whole time we worked together, that was over credit card machines. He just didn’t want to take credit cards.”

Jim won that disagreement. A credit card machine sits on their front counter. Jim says his dad now sees the wisdom of modernizing.

Over the years, Hardy Johnson has become a celebrity in the Fountain City community.

The wall of his shop is filled with local honors, mementos, and pictures with community leaders.

Nearly 70 years ago, there was a break in Hardy Johnson’s shoe repair career: He volunteered and joined the Army and served in the Korean War. However, not as a cobbler, but in the Signal Corps, climbing poles in Korea. Johnson said he enjoyed it.

Moving to new location

After nearly 10 years at their present location, their workspace has become crowded, they need more room.

So, they’re moving next door.

They have to be moved from 5503 to 5501 Broadway, which offers three times the amount of space. Hardy Johnson says he owes loving his job to everyone – to his customers, suppliers, and to his son. His passion has not waned.

In Knoxville today, Hardy Johnson says his business is one of two family-owned shoe repair shops still in operation.

Jim Johnson says their business remains viable not only because they repair shoes, but also provide shoe modifications – lifts, foot soles and heel replacement, as well as leather repair for purses, jackets and belts.

Some people remember wearing sneakers, or rubber sole shoes, only during gym classes, but not anymore. The sales of sneakers and other athletic footwear outsold dresses and casual shoe sales and leather shoes, 2 to 1 last year.

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