Do you remember the Elves and the Shoemaker by the Brothers Grimm? You know, a typical redemption story — great guy, good worker, family man, not enough food, one last piece of leather, and, voila, new leather shoes appear that are made by elves. Magical little people save the family farm and everyone goes to Lucca for potato gnocchi.
What the Shoemaker didn’t foresee, unfortunately, was that after his salvation, the elves went to Nike and New Balance and Adidas to make molded soles. And leather shoes became a luxury that competed with shoes made from petroleum products, which were manufactured overseas in large factories. Things became complicated.
The Shoemaker almost became an extinct species. Where there were 23 shops in Des Moines back in 1984, they can be counted on one hand today. But all is not doom and gloom. If you head west on Douglas Avenue, in the heart of old downtown Urbandale near where the trolley used to turn, you’ll see this small shop tucked on the north side of the road. A magical place of leather and shoes.
Inside is a wizened, middle-aged man, hidden behind a scraggly beard and glasses. Jamie Blackford began to learn the trade 28 years ago when he was finishing his last year at Hoover High School. Jamie is a shoe man. He eats it, he breathes it, he lives it. 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. This is what he does and this is what he knows.
Speaking with a low voice that mushes words together in a string that arrives to the listener as almost a one-liner: “My most favorite thing to do? I like to tear down and sand a shoe.” Is he joking? Rather than go to Florida, or Colorado, or Merle Hay Mall, he’d prefer to sand a shoe? Is he real?
Cajoled into showing off his machines, Jamie walked carefully around the tight, cluttered shop. There was no surface without abandoned footwear in the process of repair.
“This machine stitches the inside. . . . This machine stitches the outside . . . . This machine polishes. . . . This machine has 2300 moving parts . . . . Here’s where I hammer on the soles . . . .”
All very interesting, but what about the customers? “I’m not really a people person. You can ask all my friends.” See. Read that again slowly. Is he pulling our leg?
A middle-aged, dressed-for-work woman came into the shop with damaged high heels. Jamie took the shoes gently from her, held the shoes high, turned them to the right and the left, paused, scratched his beard, and remarked with an obvious twinkle in his eyes and a dramatically raised voice: “What did you do to these shoes?” The woman noticeably paled. She clearly didn’t know whether to ask for absolution or run from the store. Jamie smiled and softly reassured her: “I have a pair of high heels just like these and I do this all the time.” She began to smile and then to laugh. He quotes her an unbelievably cheap price for repair, gives her a quick date to pick them up, and whisks the damaged shoes to the back of the shop. Transaction over.
When asked whether the shop was magical, he reached over and grabbed an item from the counter: “Only when I’m holding this.”