I will admit, I have an obsession with cobblers and tailors. These craftsmen’s workrooms were occasionally visited on Saturday errands when I was young and from those brief but memorable interactions, it was their particular scent that imprinted. Ahhh…the smell arising from the steam press of a tailor’s ham and clapper stand or the warm, leathery, lingering aroma of a small shoe repair parlor. These gifted tradesmen would become essential when I began buying my own clothes and wanted a certain fit and later still, when I climbed aboard the garage sale-thrift store-estate sale-resell-repeat-Merry-Go-Round. Their expertise and creativity brought my visions to life. Anyone plagued with similar vintage clothing neuroses can understand my fixation with these gifted fixers of worn and odd fitting goods. Of course you don’t have to love vintage to have this bug.
A view of the northeast corner of 29th and Farnam Streets where the George Morris building was located. Globe Shoe Repair Company. “We call and deliver. JA. 1568″. Creator: Bostwick, Louis (1868-1943) and Frohardt, Homer (1885-1972). Publisher: The Durham Museum. Date: 1929. Standard Shoe Repair Company at 1610 Harney Street. Creator: Bostwick, Louis (1868-1943) and Frohardt, Homer (1885-1972). Publisher: The Durham Museum. Date: 1938.
From my assessment, the sensible Omahans who frequent the cobbler salons are a practical lot, who long ago determined the value in fixing a worn but good shoe. They also can be a fussy, persnickety bunch. I say this with love. In a day and age where everyone can and is encouraged to buy throwaway shoes, and everything else for that matter, the habitual shoe repair customers are the Shrewd Sallys of the world. I tip my hat. The local tailors’ habitués are typically frugal, as well, but are generally driven by other motives. These customers tend to have a fairly strong opinion about their own personal style and expectation, and to what measure they require individual modifications. So, yes, also a demanding, needy patronage. I, too, am a Particular Patty. Now I will come clean that I am a loyal customer to a small handful of cobblers and tailors—each specializing, in my estimation, in different skills; these craftsmen are quite particular and largely unbending with regard to what they will and won’t do. I make the rounds. I don’t consider this cheating but I also don’t let them know about one another. Both trades involve attention to detail, excellent vision, taste making, awareness of proper fit and apparently, good, strong boundaries. It seems these makers, worth their weight in salt, as well as their seasoned patrons, understand this is a craft and an art form. The fact that there are not a whole lot of true tailors and talented cobblers left, where there once were hundreds in Omaha, only makes the remaining few that much more cherished, in my book. In other words, take note of aforementioned boundaries and for goodness sake, don’t get on their bad side. You might enjoy reading this article about a real Omaha character: Fabulous People of Omaha: Rino the Tailor
An aside for those who are young and like side whispering: I don’t mind telling you that I am always the youngest person by decades in these environs. That should tell you something. Always go where the older people are. They’ve got the ticket. They know more.
I received a message this past Friday from my trusted go-to for specialty vintage renewal, Palma Shoe Repair. “Detective Cassette, you’d better come get your shoes because we’re closing tomorrow.” This Gumshoe’s Treasured Cobbler, finito? I might have let out a dramatic gasp. I rang them up to clarify. Yes, indeed, Palma Shoe Repair was shuttering the ol’ shop doors for the last time on Saturday, February 1. For good. This was not pleasant news.
Just so you know, because I like to make matters overly clear when I am able, this article is not a long, involved My Omaha Obsession investigation, as much as a loving, goodbye letter to one of my favorite, local cobblers. It is true, I have been up to my neck in lengthy detective work but this closing came out of the blue and simply needed to be addressed.
Tools of the trade.
It was recommended long ago that I see master cobbler and proprietor, Gary Kirkpatrick of Palma Shoe Repair. He was known as a local shoe and foot expert with a rather subdued passion for his craft, relying on old machinery, a humble, steady disposition and a toolbox of old school tricks. Palma Shoe Repair had recently moved to the edge of Rockbrook Village, the friend grumbled.
2014 photo of Palma’s, borrowed from their website.
The first time I tiptoed into Palma’s, I saw rows of custom made wood shelves behind the modest counter, overflowing with the kinds of shoes I had only seen in magazines. Any shoe person would savor the forage through this precious stock. (Over the years I have asked to touch certain shoes, however briefly and under a watchful eye. If those were your Princetown lamb wool-lined, black Gucci slippers, I am sorry for the regretful drool.) I discovered a low table to the right, made up with impossible Dehner Company riding boots, which I had, likewise, never seen in the flesh. Somehow I dreamed up this table balanced with exceeding luxuries were for sale. Magically each tall, black model, made to measure order, all appeared to be my size. I had long coveted a pair of these handcrafted riding boots after learning that Omaha famously produced them. My beloved boss at the antiques store said President Ronald Reagan had many pairs throughout his lifetime. I stood stroking the gorgeous boots wondering what the price tag might reveal when a voice from afar coarsely announced, “Those are not for sale.” I abruptly stopped manhandling the riders, cringing with shame. The voice continued, this time with a friendlier, hushed tone, “That’s a big order all for one lady.” My gosh, I exhaled. One woman could afford all of those Dehners? I was green with jealousy. How many horses must she keep and did she have the cute, little, velvet Equestrian hats also? Of course she did. I smiled and turned to the all knowing voice. From then on, it was always fun to chat with the woman at the front counter. She saw it all.
On first visit, the décor and wares appeared to be placed in a slapdash manner, that soon after became permanent fixtures. Just the type of place I might like to gussy up, if no one was looking. Mr. Cassette has coined my habit, Guerilla Interior Design. I find I can’t really help myself. But Palma Shoe Repair did nothing to lend itself to my artistic spiff ups because, you see, the place was always packed to the gills with a fervent clientele. Palma’s was the kind of Omaha place that you could never truly have to yourself, although I’ve heard they took appointments. The door was always swinging open and on any given day, the small area quickly drew a steady stream of Sheryls, Pennys and Marthas into the shop. Of course the Stans and Petes would squeeze their way in the brisk mix as well. It became apparent that this was simply The Place to Be for Anyone in the Know. But none of that Society Business really mattered to me until we got back our first orders. The quality was high. There were small, smart details, evidence of good eye. The shoes and boots looked like new but…better. How exactly did Gary do it with little to no fanfare? His work spoke for itself. Like wayward converts, Mr. Cassette and I soon became Infrequent Regulars, enduring the long drive to Rockbrook, as a pilgrimage, which, of course, was part of the fun.
I would have to suffer the loss of my profound modesty issues in these crowds. For example in trying to demonstrate to Gary that a 1940s day heel had a mystery squeak hidden within, meant walking and weaving the show floor in front of a room of strangers, as he made his professional diagnosis. This catwalk required everyone to be quiet. And on another occasion this Nice Girl had to confess the fracture of a Cha-Cha heel from a certain night on the town, with a line of open-eared lingerers breathing down one another’s necks. Of course these customers each had their own footwear maladies to own up to and were obviously seeking the shoe doctor’s opinion as well. Gary, in his kind, sleepy manner, comforted everyone that nothing was really that big of a deal. In true form, a real sole man.
Not only had Gary renewed the lives of my old friends, repairing and beautifying various vintage shoes over the years, rebuilding and resoling Mr. Cassette’s classic Red Wing work boots, I had seen Gary tackle a variety of repairs, including building shoes up for customers’ orthopedic issues, stretching shoes, shaping new soles, repairing heels, pro polishing, cutting down heels, other leather work and yes, finding all of life’s mystery shoe squeaks. Quality work, delivered with a smile and the humble graciousness of a true gentleman. Which, if I might add, is a little odd as most cobblers, in my experience, can often be real showmen. Temperamental, too. Maybe it’s the fumes? Perhaps the trick was letting Gary cobble and manage the elves in the back while having the wonderful counter woman up front hold back the masses? And how exactly did Palma Shoe Repair keep track with their cunning, little ticket system?
You could fuhgedaboutit if you lost that winning Golden Ticket. My last one.
Cobblers, oh cobblers. Sadly we have seen this level of craftsmanship, ethos, and work ethic is no longer found on every corner. The new Throw-away America allows for overproduction of cheap shoes, often constructed of low quality materials. Oddly the high price tag doesn’t seem to deter buyers but as you might know, when these babies are blown out after a few rounds, they are truly done for. There is not much a gifted craftsman can do. The thrift stores are now mostly packed with this landfill. And yes, it’s true, I have witnessed people shuffling in their fast fashion, one-season soles that the good owner of Palma would have to decline, but only because these shoes couldn’t be fixed properly. (It reminded me of the time that Rino the Tailor made me throw a dress I wanted altered in his workroom trashcan. There are standards to be observed, folks!) You can imagine how miffed people become upon rejection but these shoes and the over-priced, low quality manufacturing industry are part of the reason we have phrases such as the lost art of shoe repair. Just as we detectives commonly explore in current architectural design and building trends, Planned Obsolescence in the garment industry is an even quicker, slippery shedding of the unfashionable. Social Malaise. From my viewpoint, the expert cobbler not only repairs shoes but their services are tacked in part of a larger philosophy. I have no right to speak for the profession; this is just my dreamy interpretation. Initially, buy the highest quality that is affordable, with longevity in mind. Conserve. Reuse. Recycle. Repair the shoe, for the wearer, for the environment, and for the economy. These were values that everyone once understood, I suspect, because there were no other options—this, I gathered from a brief perusal of the long list of cobblers registered in the 1920s-1950s Omaha City Directories.
A Very Brief History
Since 1960, Palma Shoe Repair has been cobbling all of the best shoes in town from wing tips, to Ak Sar Ben Coronation Ball heels, to military footwear, to specialized orthopedic shoe repairs– conditions that required special knowledge of shoe fitting. The riding boots, purses, belts and coats meandered their way to the packed shop as well. Joseph Palma founded his repair business in 1960.
Countryside Village planners in 1953. Photo borrowed from the Countryside Village website.
Joseph and his wife Wilhelmina wisely chose Countryside Village as prime locale for the new enterprise. The established shopping center, at 87th and Pacific Streets, offered a built-in, well-heeled clientele. Opened in August of 1953, Larry and Virgie Myers built and envisioned Countryside Village as “a Small Town in the City” for the new soon to be Westside High School-Christ the King Neighborhood. From my other investigations I had learned that Larry Myers developed many of the suburban additions to this part of town. Check out this article for more details The Real Estate Secret Agent: 912 South 84th Street. Surrounded by new ranch homes and the glory of the earlier Loveland area houses, Countryside Village became Omaha’s first shopping center, outside of Downtown Omaha. Virgie’s Town and Country, one of the early Countryside Village shops, was in fact, Mrs. Myers’ boutique. The Village was constructed in two stages.
Countryside Village aerial in 1955. Photo borrowed from the Countryside Village website.
Palma Shoe Repair was focused on customer service from its very beginning, catering to orthopedic fits. It was soon renamed Palma Shoe Repair and Orthopedic Clinic. Mr. Palma set to work building up a clientele, much like the local barbershops, the butcher shops, and the tailors, his fine work would ensure customers for a lifetime. Curiously his shop was housed in the basement of Lloyd Shoes. If anyone remembers what bay Lloyd Shoes was in, I would love to hear! And also, does every bay in Countryside Village offer a basement? I only know of the Village Bookstore turned Bookworm and the Village Grinder’s basements.
1977 advertisement borrowed from the OWH. By all means, feel free to despise these male woven wedges.
Gary Kirkpatrick told me he bought the shop from Joseph Palma in 1980. He attributed his success to the location of Countryside Village and the support of neighborhood residents. “It’s a great customer clientele,” who he believed were the reason, the Village “stood the test of time.” His shoe buffing machines were soon spinning round the clock according to a late 80s blurb in the press.
Ahhh the 70s and 80s at the Village. The art fair, buying gum at the Broadmoor Grocery, the Village Ace Hardware, the Village Bookshop & Stationery, the Needlepoint Studio, Altschaffl Antiques, the Dance Shoppe, Krug’s Men and Boys (the first time I saw a Lacoste, then called Izod), The Stamp Collection, Brilezyay Gallery, Mervin Reese Photographers (where I had my senior photo taken) and Lloyd Shoes. Yes, I realized later I did know about the Lloyd family shoe store. I can still see the carpeting and the basement shoe repair through the railing. Is that correct or am I thinking of a men’s shoe store downtown?
Gary Kirkpatrick in 2013. Photo borrowed from the OWH.
In September of 2013, Gary decided to move Palma Shoe Repair, a fixture of Countryside Village for more than 30 years to its 10811 Elm Street location. Apparently a tailor was leasing the main level bay by the time Palma Shoe Repair moved from the Village. For the record, it is interesting to consider that Larry and Virgie Myers also designed and built Rockbrook Village Shopping Center. This location had been home to Sneaker Cobbler; Gary purchased it when the owners retired. He told the World-Herald, “I’m not in the basement anymore. I’m on the main floor.” I do not know the specifics of Gary’s decision to move, but this was within the time frame of many old-time tenants and business owners’ mass exodus from Countryside Village.
Long-time shoe repairmen like Gary know they’re in an honorable but fading profession. There are no real schools for professional cobbling. All shoe repair craftsmen began through apprenticeships, training on the job, honing their trade and if lucky, moved into business ownership through inheritance or sheer determination. Gary had been looking for a younger apprentice or interested buyer for years. I know this, because the woman at the front counter and Gary, himself would often ask Mr. Cassette or I if he’d like to learn the trade. I’ve got to think they were asking many young men the same question. So the writing was on the wall but I honestly believed it would be a while off in the distance. So although it came as a shock, I cannot blame a fellow for wanting to retire, especially someone who was such a meticulous worker for forty years. I understand, Gary and I wish you and your family well. Cheers to your retirement and the next chapters in your life. Ya done good.
A tiny makeshift desk, to get them through closing day, with the beloved boot.
Closing Day. There was a small, strange gathering of customers at Palma Shoe Repair on Saturday morning. The door continued to open, much as it always had, but this time to disbelieving, mouth-agape customers who hadn’t yet heard the news. I determined we collectively didn’t want to let go of our trusted shoe repairman but were also quieted by the solemn realization of another lost craftsman in a town of ever dwindling skilled workers. My eyes watered up, so I pretend-inspected my newly returned, spruced-up shoes in their bag until I could swallow it back down. Isn’t that silly? A customer asked Gary where he could recommend a decent cobbler in town. Without missing a beat, Gary responded, “Go to Andy’s Shoe Repair on 50th and Grover.” And so, I pass this insider tip along to you, friends.
Gary Kirkpatrick on closing day (February 1, 2020) with nearly empty shelves behind him.
“Don’t retire your favorite shoes! Repair them. Don’t throw away your favorite shoes! Repair them. Locally owned and operated. Palma Shoe Repair offers quality craftsmanship, repairing shoes and leather goods. Palma’s offers old world skill and service second to none. If you have a worn out pair of shoes or perhaps other leather goods needing repair, bring them in to Palma’s. Gary will make your shoe look like new again! Specializing in the repair of Red Wing boots and Allen Edmunds shoes.” From the Palma Facebook page.
Loading out day in Rockbook.
This is only a small part of the story. I welcome your feedback and information about Palma Shoe Repair and Countryside Village. Please feel free to leave a thought or goodbye to Gary in Comments. Thank you, detective friends.
If you like what you see, you can keep up with my latest investigations by joining my email group. Click on “Contact” then look for “Sign me up for the Newsletter!” Enter your email address. It will then display “Thank you, your sign-up request was successful!” Make sure to check your email address to confirm. You will get sent email updates every time I have written a new article. Also feel free to join My Omaha Obsession on Facebook.
© Miss Cassette and myomahaobsession, 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Miss Cassette and myomahaobsession with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.