Keeping a tradition alive one boot at a time

Friday, January 19, 2007
Bob Rust has been repairing boots and shoes in Le Mars for the past 35 years. He says he'd like to do it for at least another ten years. (Sentinel photo by Earl Horlyk)

In his downtown Le Mars shoe store, Bob Rust still keeps one of his dad's original shoe repair hammer on the wall.

"All of us boys had the hammer mounted to this plaque after he retired," Rust, the owner of Rust's Western Shed, explains. "Check out that claw. Don't make 'em like that anymore."

Under the hammer, the plaque bears the inscription: "Thank you for 35 years of service."

Paul Rust didn't necessarily want want of his boys to follow in his shoe-repairing footsteps but three of his four boys did nevertheless.

"When people would ask dad about his sons, he'd say 'Roger's taking over his shop in Harlan, Mike has a shop in Storm Lake, and Bob's in Le Mars," Rust laughs. "He didn't think his sons would want to be in shoe repair but I know he was secretly flattered."

"My dad grew up during the Depression," Rust relates. "My grandfather lost the family farm and my dad had to leave school after the sixth grade. If you didn't have the education, you needed to find a trade. And that's exactly what my dad did."

"Shoe repair became my dad's trade," he mentions.

Rust's father apprenticed under an older shoe repairman before setting up shop on his own in 1943.

"My dad had the shop in Harlan," Rust recalls, "and, at some point, all of us kids worked there."

"I was putting on heels by the time I was nine or ten years old," he says proudly.

Growing up, Rust always remembered what his father had taught him.

"Dad always said 1) a shoe repair man will always be able to make a living," he explains, "and 2) the hardest thing to say to a customer is 'no.'"

"He was right," Rust smiles as he lined up, in a neat little row, the shoes and boots waiting to be repaired. "I've always been able to make a good living doing what I'm doing."

"And I still have trouble saying 'no' to a customer," he groans good-naturedly while glancing at his workload.

Rust tried college for a while but knew it wasn't for him.

"I like repairing shoes," he states. "That's what I enjoyed doing and I was good at it. In the back of my mind, that was something I always knew."

Rust began his shoe repair career in a small shop off of Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha.

"I apprenticed there," he maintains, "and really learned my craft.

Rust's take home pay?

$97 a week.

"This was back in early 1970's," he says, shaking his head. "I had just gotten married and knew I wouldn't be able to support a family on only $97 a week. I had to go out on my own."

Moving to Le Mars in 1973, Rust bought Royal Shoe Repair from a retiring Johnny Zeige.

"Johnny had been around for years," Rust recalls, "but he was ready to move on."

"Y'see, Johnny had a little shop right next to the Royal Theater," he remembers. "It was just a tiny place, just enough room for him and two shoeshine chairs."

The shoeshine chairs took Rust back to his own childhood.

"My brothers and I would always shine shoes at our dad's shop," he smiles. "On a Saturday night, we'd be knee-deep in shoes."

Rust says he and his brothers would charged a quarter for a shoeshine.

"We'd keep a nickel and dad would get the rest," he laughs. "We felt like we were the richest kids in Harlan."

"Looking back," Rust adds, "we probably were."

Opening up his own repair shop at the tender age of 20 could have been daunting but the ambitious young Rust knew he was more than up to the challenge.

"There's something so satisfying about repairing a shoe," he admits. "Not only are you saving the customer money he'd need by buying a new pair of shoes but, on a more personal level, you really feel a sense of accomplishment when you're done."

"Repairing a shoe is truly a craft," Rust says with a smile.

But he also knows it's a dying craft.

As people's lifestyles have become less formal, so did their choice of footwear.

"When I was growing up, people wore leather shoes," Rust responds. "If they lived on a farm, they'd wear leather boots. Even kids, active in sports, who needed to wear athletic shoes preferred Converse canvas and not non-repairable tennis shoes."

"Never thought I'd see the day where tennis shoes would outnumber leather shoes as everyday attire," he says somewhat sadly.

Advances in shoe manufacturing also had an impact on Rust's business.

"Heels began being made with urathane," he mentions, "and were meant to last the life of the shoe. The heels did but they'd also outlast the 'uppers' which couldn't be fixed."

As demand for Rust's niche leveled off, he decided to find other niches.

He moved his business one block north and began selling a full selection of shoes and boots.

"I may not have been able to fix their shoes," Rust smiles, "but I could sell 'em a brand new pair."

He also expanded the items that he repaired.

"People began bringing in their saddles and luggage and boat tarps," Rust says. "Whatever they bring in, if I can fix it, I'll fix it."

"It's tough keeping a shoe repair open nowadays," he admits. "You're working 50-60 hours a week. And if you're not willing to diversify, well, you're out of business."

Rust understands the importance of customer service. That's why he's seen people from a three-state radius come to his shop.

"Oh, we've had people from Nebraska, South Dakota, and all parts of Iowa, come in," he says. "We've also had former Le Mars residents send in their shoes and boots to be worked, from all parts of the country."

"That's a nice feeling," Rust mentions modestly. "It makes you feel like what you're doing is important."

He's also seen three generations of customers come through his door for all of their shoe repair problems.

"I've seen guys my age or older bring in their shoes," Rust chuckles. "Then I'd see their sons. And, nowadays, their grandsons."

"Wow!" he exclaims. "As much as time changes, some things will remain the same. Customers expect quality service and that's what I've always tried to give."

"People will always need the mechanic, the plumber, or the shoe repair man," Rust adds. "It's decent living and, if you take pride in your work, they will always come back."

But Rust says he wanted something better for his own son.

"I named my son Paul, after my dad," he explains. "I wanted Paul to go to college because I knew it was important to him"

"It was also important to me," Rust interjects. "He's a filmmaker in Los Angeles now. There have been months when he's had to struggle to pay the rent but he's doing something that he loves to do."

"In fact, Paul's doing something that he's meant to do," he smiles. "Just like his old man, I guess."

Rust takes another look at his father's old hammer and he reflects on a life spent repairing shoes.

"When my dad died," he says, "I know he was proud of what he had accomplished. He was proud of his family and everything that we had accomplished."

"My dad spent 35 years of his life resoling and re-heeling shoes," Rust remarks, "and he took pride in his craftsmanship. He knew that was his legacy and he was making a difference in the lives of his customers."

"Dad accomplished everything he set out to do," he reflects, "and he made a whole lotta friends in the process. People who depended on him and people who respected his work."

Rust realizes he has now spent the last 35 years of HIS life doing exactly what his father did.

"This'll be my 35th year in town," he says, "and I took over a shop from a man who repaired shoes for over 43 years. That means Le Mars has had a place to take its shoes and boots to repair for the past 78 years!"

"That's pretty astonishing once you think about it," Rust says, scratching his head.

But he's not done yet.

"People always ask me with a worried look on their faces, 'Are ya gonna retire? Please don't tell me you're gonna retire soon,'" Rust laughs. "I tell 'em 'Don't worry.' I'm 55 years old and I'll be doing what I love to do for at least the next ten years if not longer."

"Heck," he smiles, "they'll probably have to take me out of this place kicking and screaming. But that's alright."

"I'm keeping a tradition alive," Rust says, "one boot at a time."

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