Chances are, if asked to describe a shoe repair shop, you probably wouldn’t use the words “pretty” or “refined.” But Gail Sundling, owner of the Delmar Bootery, might convince you otherwise.
When asked to take the reins of her parents’ Delmar, NY, store after her mom broke her neck in a 1976 car accident, Sundling—then 24 years old and pregnant—pondered her next move.
“One of the first things that I did, instinctively, was to upgrade the store’s image, only because I didn’t like to work in clutter, and I needed things organized,” she recalled. “As I was doing that, the response of the customers was, ‘Oh, I love coming in here. It’s so warm. It’s so beautiful.’ Then I thought, ‘Why can’t shoe repair be as elegant as any other business?’”
That’s when Sundling expanded her vision for the 425-square-foot store—which had been physically connected to her childhood home in the Albany suburb of Delmar since opening in 1938. That vision was realized in 1988, when Sundling opened a second Delmar Bootery—this time in a stylish Albany outdoor mall where the business continues to operate today, surrounded by art galleries, restaurants, jewelry stores, a salon, and a spa.
“The finest plaza that we have in Albany is Stuyvesant Plaza, and I felt if I could get in there, I would have achieved my goal,” she said.
But the mall’s manager, clinging to common perceptions about what a shoe repair place would look like, took some convincing.
The warm, rich wood interior and inviting atmosphere of this 1500-square-foot shop is intended to reflect the high-quality comfort shoes sold here, as well as the staff’s focus on customer service. Delmar Bootery carries a variety of men’s and women’s shoe lines, including Drew, Alden, Aetrex, Dansko, Sanita, New Balance, Sebago, and Tauer & Johnson. Mandy Sundling Young, Delmar’s vice president and the owner’s daughter, said they select shoe lines that come in numerous widths and can be successfully modified and repaired. This isn’t as simple as it used to be, Sundling and Young agree.
“Manufacturers do not make it easy for us to repair items,” said Young, referring to the increasing number of low-cost, fast-fashion shoes. “Glues won’t adhere to a lot of materials that they’re using. A lot of times the shoes are injection-molded, so, if we try to take apart the soles, we can’t always get the shoe put back together the way it was supposed to be.”
Still, the Delmar Bootery, which closed its original location in 2000, does between 20,000 and 30,000 repairs a year, including fixing heels and soles; adding sole guards; stretching shoes and cleaning,
polishing, patching, and stitching them; replacing hardware and zippers; shortening purse straps and belts; and treating leather. The store’s closest competition for repairs is an hour away, said Young, who estimates only about a half dozen shoe repair shops remain in New York’s 2200-square-mile Capital Region.
On the retail side of the business, the staff spends at least 45 minutes with each new client.
“We’re not there to sell shoes, we’re there to fit shoes,” Sundling emphasized. “That’s crucial to our business.”
New employees are trained for six months before they are allowed to fit a customer alone, she says. Staff also educate customers on the many ways high-quality shoes can be repaired, saving them money in the long run.
Young describes Delmar’s typical customer as “at the end of her rope,” unable to find a single pair of comfortable shoes and unwilling to give up fashion.
“We’re therapists here a lot of times,” she said.
All the challenges, both old and new, remind Sundling of something her father, Delmar Bootery founder Jack Leonardo, used to say more than a half century ago: “We’re not craftsmen. We’re magicians.”
Catherine M. Koetters is a freelance writer in the Los Angeles area.