A more than 100-year-old Hillsboro landmark will be lost to the ages next week when the building and most of the contents that comprised Webster’s Shoe Repair go up for auction.
The small, two-story building located at 130 S. High St. first housed a shoe repair business in 1904 when Cecil Wells opened a cobbler’s shop there. But it was best known at Webster’s Shoe Repair, where the late Homer Webster started working in 1940 before he finally retired in 2009.
“The story I always heard was that he was walking by the window, saw them in there working, and liked what they were doing,” said 60-year-old Mark Webster, the oldest of Homer’s two sons. “He started there as an apprentice not long after that, but then he was a cobbler in the service and that’s where he really learned his trade.”
John Shaw, a former owner of the shop, hired Homer for $12 a week when he was a junior in high school. He worked before and after school. After Homer graduated from Hillsboro High School in 1941 he looked for other work because Shaw couldn’t afford to hire him full-time. But no one would hire him because they figured he was about to be drafted.
As fortune would have it, John Shaw died in 1941. His son, Lee Shaw, took the business over and he asked Homer to run it.
During World War II, Homer was drafted into the U.S. Navy in 1944 and spent 18 months at Pearl Harbor working at the same craft he left behind. He once said the craft saved his life because it was the only thing that kept him from being part of the invasion force. The shop was closed while Homer was gone, but when he returned in 1946 he reopened it as Shaw’s Shoe Repair.
He bought the business in 1960, renamed it Webster’s Shoe Repair, and Mark says that’s where he and his 55-year-old brother Don were partly raised.
“I remember piles of shoes, even up until the 1960s and 1970s,” Mark said. “I think that’s when it started dying off, when they started shipping in shoes from China and other places.”
His first memories of the shop, Mark said, are of him and Don walking the couple blocks to the shop after school from Webster Elementary.
“We’d walk up there and he’d put us on the work bench, pulling soles and heels off shoes, sweeping the floor, things like. We couldn’t hurt much and anything we were able to do was less he had to do. That work bench never, ever moved since we were little guys,” Mark said with a distant look in his eyes.
“We almost never got new shoes ‘cause dad bought good, quality ones and then he’d just repair them,” Mark added. “Then mine would get passed down and I don’t think poor Don ever had a new pair until he finally outgrew me.”
Mark said it was always his dad’s goal to keep the shop open until 2004, marking the 100th year since a shoe repair business first opened there. But Homer kept working until December of 2009 when his health forced him to quit.
“I think he just loved it and it became a hobby in the later years. He said he’d like to retire, but he never did,” Mark said. “His buddies were up there – Frank Collins, Dick Shaffer – and they’d shoot the breeze on what they called the Liar’s Bench or something like that. If that bench could talk it could tell you some stories.”
Besides shoes, Homer fixed ball gloves, tarps and just about anything that could be sewn. Mark said he had lots of gloves to lace because of Collins and Shaffer, the namesake of today’s Richard Shaffer Park in Hillsboro, where Collins was Shaffer’s right-hand man. He said his dad would take the gloves home at night and lace them while he watched TV.
“He always tried to steer us away from it because he said it was a dying trade,” Mark said. “I think it is, but there is a need. Just not enough in a small town.”
After Homer passed away on Jan. 25, 2010, Mark and his wife Barbara ran the shop from 2010 to 2014. They added a tobacco shop to the shoe repair business. Mark said they did fairly well for a couple years, but the work kept declining.
“I was raised on it and I thought I should give it a try,” Mark said.
But, he said a lot of shoes can’t be repaired anymore, not a lot of people buy the kind of shoes that can be repaired, and if a cobbler does a good job, a customer doesn’t need to see him for another year or two.
After Mark closed the shop and the boys’ mother, Betty Webster, passed away on Feb. 7 of this year, they decided it was time to move on.
The sale, including the building and its contents, except for some mementos Mark and Don will keep, will be held at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 13 at the shop at 130 S. High St.
“Me and Don just can’t handle it. It brings back too many memories and stuff, too. We decided to pass it on,” Mark said. “I think in 2010 I was looking for that guy to come by and say, hey, that’s what I want to do. But he never came by.”
Reach Jeff Gilliland at 937-402-2522 or on Twitter @13gillilandj.