The cobblers of Brunswick
The timeless wisdom of our shoe repairers
ON moving into my suburb 30 years ago, one of the services I looked for was a shoe repairer. I have a slightly uneven gait that wears away the sole on one side.
Walking down Victoria Street on a mild autumn afternoon, I found a tiny one-man shop Inside was a genial Greek gentleman. I offered my name and he replied, “I’m Arthur”. I handed over a pair of brown leather shoes to be re-soled. The question he asked next surprised me, “What is your street number?”. Not my name or phone number? I’m taken aback. I say “6”, which he carefully draws with chalk on the soles of the shoes.
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Walking home, I got to thinking about his question. It’s not a perfect system as it is possible that two people will have the same street number. But given it is a rough guide, it helps avoid the rare conjunction of customer and shoe style. And it’s more reliable than transcribing foreign names or complex phone numbers.
This is a man who has worked out a place for himself in the world.
Three decades later, I realise Arthur may not be there forever. Where did he come from? What has he witnessed? This series of Brunswick makers is a chance to ask questions and learn about the hidden role of cobblers in our modern suburbs.
He’s more than happy to oblige. Arthur Ioannou tells me how he came out from Evia Island in 1968 when he was in his late-twenties. He is now 85-years-old and has been working in the same shop for an incredible 55 years. I calculate that’s more than 100,000 times when Arthur opened his tiny shop on Victoria Street, to spend a day replacing heels, mending soles and chatting with customers.
Today, Arthur is an ancient witness of Brunswick history. “Before the streets were so busy with people. It was so crowded between six and eight in the morning as people went to work in factories. And it was really bustling on Saturday with big shops such as Waltons.” Arthur stirs from his reverie and looks at me soulfully. “And now, it’s just cars.”
What does Arthur do in his time off? “I used to go fishing, but my age is difficult. Nothing to do at home, so I come in here. What can do?”
I think of all the temporary staff in the shops around Arthur, whose names I never learn, and who are desperate to finish their shifts. This tiny shop is his life.
Are there others like Arthur?
Arthur is not the only ancient Greek in Brunswick. John Kokios can now be found in the forlorn shell of Brunswick market. He is slightly younger at 82 years of age and has only been working 42 years. He used to have the Vienna Shoes shop on Sydney Road before downsizing to the market.
John’s wife died two years ago and his two daughters have married. “I don’t come in for money any more. It’s a way to pass the time.” Given the number of old Greek men who are seen in his shop, it’s also a valuable meeting spot, especially with the closure of the Sparta Cafe on Sydney Road.
He looks at me with a wry smile, “I’ve got two or three years before I go to the other place.” Then with pride, John shows me with 200 odd lasts that will be his legacy. Indeed, he makes shoes as well as repairs.
There’s something especially poignant about the legacy of lasts. The lasts of shoemaker Edward Green continue to be used in successive generations of workers in the company now named after him. I hope John’s lasts will, indeed, last.
As often in Brunswick, alongside the Greeks are the Calabrians.
Opposite Arthur on Victoria Street is Bus Stop Repairs, run by Greg Condello. Greg represents the other southern Italian culture of Brunswick. He was born in the village of Misingari, close to where the places the families of nearby Mediterranean Wholesalers and La Manna come from.
Greg’s uncle Angelo had worked as an apprentice shoemaker in Calabria. After working in shoe factories around Melbourne, he eventually established the Brunswick shop in 1975.
In 1985, Angelo opened a second shoe repair shop at Barkly Square and needed someone to take over his existing shop. Nephew Greg took over. Like Arthur, Greg remembers the legendary Brunswick rush hour.
“Back in those days, everybody wanted things done yesterday. With factories, workers only have one half an hour for lunch, all that 12 o’clock on the dot. You see everybody rushing to pick up shoes or go and get a sandwich or go get the Mediterranean. It was crazy.”
But things slowed down as Brunswick became more residential. That gives Greg more time with his customers. “I love my customers. They are more like family.”
Despite the rise of fast fashion, his customers still believe in good quality shoes. His favourite is the RM Williams. “They’ll be getting some wear on the soles, but the uppers last that long. You can get 19 years with a pair of them.”
Greg has his bolthole in Rosebud where he heads off on Sunday. But he has no plans for retirement.
Meanwhile, in Barkly Square, Angelo passed on his shop to his son, also called Greg, with his sister Angela. You’ll find classic industrial stitching machines alongside the glossy new products.
Barkly Square Greg has seen changes in our attitudes to shoes. When they were made here 20 years ago, “people used to value their shoes”. That changed with cheap Chinese imports, but now there’s a renewed care for shoes. “We find a lot more the younger generation look after their shoes a lot better. They buy polishes and get them fixed.”
Angelo Senior is 81 now, but he still drops in. The two Gregs get on fine, referring customers to each other for particular needs. And the next generation is now at work with Greg’s son, named Angelo, of course.
Despite the rise of fast fashion and car-centric lives, the cobblers of Brunswick persist in their timeless trade. They not only heal our soles but also provide the amiable small talk that helps us feel at home here.
As the ancient Stoic philosopher of Brunswick says, “What can do?”
This article was originally published on ‘Culture Makers’, a newsletter written by Kevin Murray.