George Moehring wishes he had a dollar for every pair of shoes he held in his hands. Just how much would that earn him? After nearly 70 years in the business of sole protection, it's hard to say, but one thing would be certain.
"It'd sure stack up," he said. "I've seen a lot of stinky, smelly feet."
For the past 56 years, the local artisan has been selling and repairing shoes in Hutchinson. He first sold shoes at Carly's Shoes in downtown Hutchinson while repairing at a side business in the back — The Shoe Inn.
"I bought it from someone else who had it there," Moehring said.
Then, 16 years ago, he moved his repair business down the road to 137 Main St. In a workshop marked with a vintage gold and black sign, the artisan continued to ply his trade as demand dwindled and changes to manufacturing practices meant damage to many shoes sent them to the garbage can. It was once more viable to repair soles and heels than buy new footwear. Moehring sewed many soles, but now manufacturers opt for glue. Even many cowboy boots are molded together.
"Everything is," Moehring said. "It's like the tires on your car. You don't retread them anymore. You put new tires on them."
Those who do come for repair on shoes that can be fixed up do so from all across the state.
"There are still good shoes out there," Moehring said. "The one I fixed today were a pair of $200 dress shoes. It's the second or third time I put soles or heels on there. It's worth it."
In addition to shoe repair — with a special appreciation for men's heels and boots — Moehring has spent time fixing purses and improving lawn chairs, among other projects. But a year of COVID-19 precautions has further lessened business and Moehring, now 85, decided it might be a good time to call it quits.
"My health is good, but my feet and legs?" he asked this past week. "And with COVID and everything else, I'm barely breaking even. There is not that much happening."
There was once a time when a shoe repairman — once called a cobbler — had more demand for his services. When Moehring started, it was part of an internship selling and fixing up shoes at Hanson Shoes in Blue Earth in 1952.
"They said, 'This is how you start. Do this.' They gave me things to do and built up my confidence," he said. "It was all hands-on."
Moehring was at Hanson Shoes for eight years before he moved to Sleepy Eye for three years, and then started his time in Hutchinson. At one time those working in shoe repair in Minnesota were more common, and Moehring could name names in other cities. Now there's a big empty space. He can think of someone in Iowa, a woman in New Prague who mostly works with zipper jackets, and another in Windom. He thinks one person offering repairs in Buffalo might be the fourth generation doing so in the family.
"It's not like it used to be," he said.
In addition to seeking a buyer for his shop space, Moehring has an inventory of tools and machines that would be rarely spotted across the United States. When he purchased The Shoe Inn 56 years ago, many of the machines used there were new, and they've come through for him during the years. One patch machine had hiccups and needed repairs 20 years ago, and even then it took two years to find the right part. The machine had first been manufactured in England, then Germany and then Japan.
"The parts in Japan don't agree with the parts in England," Moehring said. "It was the same part but not compatible."
When he steps fully into retirement, Moehring expects he'll stay busy with the help of his wife, Sally, who many may recognize from her 18 years at Hallmark. The pair have plenty of ties to Hutchinson after so many years living and working in the city, and raising four children. They are considering volunteer work, such as with Meals on Wheels. Sally is already busy helping at their church and as part of the Hutchinson Hospital Auxiliary.
"She's my organizer," Moehring said. "My wife will keep me busy."