Friday, 21 November 2008

The City Sole Healers

Whilst Paris has largely managed to avoid the worldwide slide of cities towards an inter-changeable identikit identity, it remains a city, and necessarily shares some aspects of life that have evolved in these large communities. Cities are machines that function in mostly the same universal manner, housing certain trades that are entirely suited to the lives and needs of the inhabitants. Stop almost any person moving around a metropole and you’ll find they have two objects in common; a set of keys and a pair of shoes.

With this in mind, walk around almost any city and you may begin to notice two things. Firstly, shoe repairers are also specialists in key cutting, and secondly almost all of these shops seem to date back to at least the 1960s. Whilst most places in a city are involved in a constant struggle to adapt and keep up with fashions, the simple shoe repairer has quietly gone about his business. Why think about fashion when fashion does not exist in this trade?

A shoe or a key is a simple, universal object that has not changed to any great extent in centuries. Although we may now speak of biometric security, keys are still the keepers of the city door, and they still look much like they did in the middle ages. Our feet may be dressed today in more sporty models than in the past, but they are still functional items that have the same attributes as their ancestors - a heel, a sole, insoles and laces. When a lock changes or a heel breaks, we do not care about finding a modern, attractive store for our need, but someone who can offer us a quick service at a reasonable price.

Around Paris, I find shops that seemingly cornered the local market in the 50s and 60s and have kept their position in the community ever since. Where individuals may have retired, others have taken over the business and have seen no reason to renovate a fully-functional store. What would be the point when the machinery is still operating and a steady stream of people continues to use the service?

In many ways it is the ideal city business. Initial investment in tools and materials is low, and the shop can be set up in the smallest, low-rent units. It can be a one-person occupation with limited need for additional staff, and offers a steady stream of income with no need for continual occupational training. Storekeepers can keep stock for almost indefinite periods, and offer a service that people will never be able to reproduce in their own homes. For these reasons, it has often been a service provided by immigrants into a city, although with saturation levels reached many years ago in Paris, it is only through the purchase of existing units that the recent arrival can set up shop today.


What may be unique to Paris is the fact that no chain store franchising system is involved. These are individual businesses with a unique story attached to each shop, but what they share is their physical appearance. Whilst most of the street facades present a kind of faceless modernism, here are tiny throwbacks to what the city looked like 40 or 50 years ago. Typical shop logos and font types are constantly and imperceptibly altered, but these city survivors offer us a trip back through the history of post-war design as well as their more traditional, valuable service!

9 comments:

Alain Q. said...

Thank you for noticing these humble shops, so much more picturesque and efficient than the Mr Minit or Talon-Minute oulets which are what fast food is to a real bistro.

The etymology of "cordonnerie" is interesting too. No apparent connection between "cordon" and shoes. In fact the name comes from Cuir de Cordoue, or Corduan, a famous source of decorative leather since the Middle Ages.

Peter said...

I can but agree! However and unfortunately the costs for repairs of shoes is getting so expenisve that you have a tendency to rather go for new ones! ... and will we ever need our traditional keys (electronic, codes...)?

Interesting to reed about the origin of the word! The Arabian origins can also be found in the word "maroquin".

Anne said...

I have been struck by the number of shoe repair (and clothes repair) shops in Paris. They are becoming few and far between in the U.S.; in fact my brother in law who lives in a Midwestern town of perhaps 40,000 told me that there is not one single shoemaker there. But then again, the pavement does a number on your shoes in Paris so I'm glad these guys are around!

Gabriela said...

Lovely post, full of nostalgia. Here in Lima we have plenty of shoe repair stores (zapateros, we call them). There is one two blocks from my house, and he makes wonders with old and broken shoes.
Amities des Perou!

Adam said...

Thanks for your comments Gabriela. I'm afraid I don't speak Spanish, so I struggled a little with your blog! I do have an uncle who lives in Ecuador though, so perhaps I'll ask him for help!

I think if these shops are disappearing today, it is because Peter and Anne suggested - our cultures are based more around disposability, and we think more about buying something new rather than having something repaired. Perhaps this mentality will change soon! Anyway, I'm glad that you still have this mentality in Peru.

Cergie said...

La cousine de mon mari est mariée à un californien et vit depuis 35 ans aux Etats Unis, elle croit qu'elle est toujours française, mais hum ! Nous trouvons qu'elle s'est bien américanisée.
Chaque fois qu'elle vient chez nous, elle nous fait remarquer la bonne qualité des chaussures aux pieds des français (ceci dit je me suis acheté une belle paire de clarks en Californie cet été).

Il ne faut pas sous estimer les qualités nécessaires pour être un bon réparateur de chaussures et un bon exécutant de clefs. Nous avons pour notre part connu le pire et le meilleur. Le meilleur est celui qui aime ce qu’il fait et respecte sa clientèle, alors il la fidélise.
(Mon mari et moi sommes partisans misons sur la qualité dès l'achat ; toutes les chaussures ne sont pas réparables, seules celles de bonne qualité le sont)

C'est un vaste sujet que tu as abordé là, Adam.

daniel said...

I constantly browse for "stuff" about Paris...our favorite (with NYC a second fav)
Your shoe repair reminded me of an old story...
Imagine 1941 (USA) young guy goes into an old time shoe repair guy and leaves his shoes for new soles, old man says...be ready next week...a few days later he is drafted in the army...after the war he is back (lucky him) and remembers about his shoes, finds the old shoemaker in the same store, "are my shoes ready?" old man says .... be ready next week...

Adam said...

Hi Daniel - I can well imagine that story being a true one!

nathalie in avignon said...

I enjoyed everyone's input on this topic. Fun shop signs you found. Very typical of the fifties and sixties indeed.

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