Jim McFarland: Third-Generation Cobbler Fixes Footwear

Americana, Odd Jobs, People, Traditions
on February 11, 2010
Gary Bogdon Jim McFarland trims a shoe sole at his repair shop in Lakeland, Fla.

Jim McFarland, 45, pops the wooden heel off a man's leather loafer and skillfully removes the shoe's worn sole by cutting around its edge with a sharp knife. Using a heavy-duty sewing machine, McFarland stitches a new leather sole onto the shoe's upper bodyker-chunk, ker-chunk, ker-chunkbefore repeating the process with the shoe's matching mate.

After replacing the heels and trimming the soles, he cleans, polishes and buffs the shoes to a glossy sheen before starting on the next pair.

"I repair about 40 pairs of shoes a day," says McFarland, a third-generation cobbler and owner of McFarland's Shoe Repair in Lakeland, Fla. (pop. 78,452). "Two million pairs of shoes have gone through these hands during my career."

On a typical day, McFarland welcomes a steady stream of customers into his shop. Most are seeking replacements for worn soles, broken heels or missing eyelets, while others need shoes stretched for comfort, or a prescription filled for orthopedic or diabetic footwear.

"I just don't believe in going out and buying new when I can extend the life of what I have," says Mason Gathwright, 64, a longtime customer who drove more than 100 miles from Vero Beach, Fla., for McFarland to repair his shoes.

McFarland was born into the shoe repair business. His grandfather Lewis McFarland learned the trade in 1918 and three years later opened his own shop in Hamilton, Ohio. Lewis' son James T. took up the cobbler's trade as well, and in 1964 opened a shop in St. Petersburg, Fla., where baby Jim chewed on leather in a playpen, literally cutting his teeth on a shoe sole.

Following in his father's footsteps, McFarland was repairing shoes at age 15, and by 20 was managing one of his father's two shops in Lakeland. "After my father died, I wanted to take the business as far as I could," says McFarland, who joined the Shoe Service Institute of America in 1990 to hone his skills.

The Bel Air, Md.-based organization hosts the Grand Silver Cup contest, which pits the best shoe repairmen in the world against one another in a competition to restore worn-out shoes to their original condition.

"I entered 10 times before I won in 2002," says McFarland, whose silver trophy sits in a glass case with the pair of tasseled loafers that helped him win the contest, prized tools that belonged to his grandfather and three small hammers, property of three generations of McFarland cobblers.

"I saw those loafers when I moved here from Atlanta in 2002," says customer Tom Christy, 60, "and I knew this man really takes pride in what he does. I've had the shoes I'm wearing re-heeled and re-soled four times in the last seven years."

Instead of buying new shoes, some young people are repairing old ones, a practice previously appreciated only by the older generation. "Young people are learning that a trip to the cobbler can extend the life of a shoe by years," says McFarland, who specializes in fitting people with proper footwear to address foot or leg pain or medical conditions.

While McFarland has expanded his skills and product line to accommodate changing times, he believes the basics of shoe repair haven't changed much since his grandfather got into the business more than 90 years ago. "The key is service," he says. "If your product fails, you fail."

But what rewards McFarland the most is the sense of family pride and history he feels while working in his repair shop. "I always feel close to my dad when I'm here," he says.

7,000 – The number of cobblers repairing shoes across the nation, down from 40,000 in the 1950s
Source: Shoe Service Institute of America.