Brummel's a 30-year fixture in downtown Edgerton
EDGERTON -- In what many consider a "throw away" society, Al Brummel and his wife Sharon have worked for 30 years to repair the world instead.
They are the owners of Brummel's Sewing & Shoes in Edgerton. For the past three decades, Al has repaired everything from cowboy boots to sewing machines. Fixing fish house canvases, baseball gloves, winter coats and run-down heels are old hat to a man who has spent his adult life solving problems with tools and ingenuity.
Al has lived in Edgerton all of his life, except for the time period he spent in Vietnam as a U.S. Army soldier. After returning home, he married Sharon, who had come to town from Michigan to teach at the Christian school. He then went to work at the Edgerton Enterprise for 15 years, reporting, lead casting and typesetting. During those years, as his family grew, Al bought a sewing machine business, which he operated part-time.
"But I really wanted to do something on my own -- something different," he said.
He got the chance when the owner of the sewing business decided to retire.
"So, we've been here since the fall of 1982," Sharon said.
The Brummels added shoe repair, then the local department store decided to get out of the shoe business. The Brummels ended up with their inventory.
Al still does sewing machine repair, but has since gotten out of the retail end of the business. He also used to fix small appliances such as toasters and coffee pots, but the market for that kind of repair has dried up as people buy new appliances instead.
Just repairing or replacing zippers requires a serious chunk of time, the Brummels said. Many zippers that consumers believe are broken can be fixed easily with a new slider. Even replacing a zipper can be remarkably cheaper than replacing a garment. At any given time, several winter coats hang from a rack in the shop, waiting for a new zipper or for an owner to pick up the item. Sometimes, Al said, customers forget to come back for their winter coats until the next cold snap hits the area.
"This year had been a bit unusual for that," he said with a laugh. "They've piled up a bit."
The store also sells a full line of Red Wing shoes and boots, rubber footwear and pack boots.
"Not so many boots this year, with this weird winter," Al stated.
There are many elements that can go into shoe repair, from worn-out soles to heels that need replacing. Stitching, shaping, stretching and even dyeing can be a part of the job.
Even cheaper shoes are making their way through the door of Brummels -- something that has changed over the years.
"It used to be that the cheap shoes couldn't be fixed as well, but now the glues are better and can fix almost anything," Al stated.
The hard part, he said, is determining if it is more fiscally sound to repair or flat-out replace that kind of item.
"People need to be educated about what kind of items to bring in," Sharon said.
Both Sharon and Al are slightly stymied about what exactly that education entails, though, as the range of items that have managed to repair varies so vastly.
"I've made turkey chaps, covers for dog kennels, other vinyl items," he said. "As I get older, I do less and less canvas work. I'm not nuts about it. I still fix boat covers, but don't do truck covers anymore."
While a large part of Al's ability to fix items can be attributed to ability, he readily admitted that having the correct tools is very important.
"Having the right tools makes it easier, and I have good equipment," he said.
A complicated piece of equipment Al referred to as a "5 in 1" (or a skiver) cuts and trims shoe leather to the exact size of a shoe after it has been fitted. It also presses soles and does several other shoe repair-related chores. Brummel's has two rows of shoe stretchers along one wall; Al said they're often used to stretch a whole shoe or just small areas of one.
There is also an industrial stitcher, a patch machine strong enough to go through layers of leather, and a back room that holds large tables and an industrial sewing machine. Along with the tools are the consumable pieces Al uses to repair items, such as leather patches, blank soles and heels, leather cord and a plethora of zippers and sliders.
When he bought the shop, there was an old finisher, but Al said it worked slowly. When sewing and shoe repair stores began to close in other small towns, Al and Sharon purchased some of their newer equipment.
"When I first started in this business, there were repair shops in Pipestone, Luverne, Worthington, Slayton, Fulda -- some of the towns had two," he said.
Some of the proprietors of those stores retired, Sharon said, and others went out of business. There are still shoe repair stores in some towns, but not nearly as many as there used to be.
Al learned some of his techniques from the previous owner, but has also read books on shoe repair. Years ago, he said, there was a tri-state shoe repair association, and it wasn't unusual for proprietors to talk to each other about how to fix something they hadn't faced before. The shops would take turns hosting a meeting and showing the others the way they went about repairing various items.
Now, as repair shops get fewer and farther between, the Brummels get customers from a widening area that covers Marshall, Beaver Creek, Sioux Falls, S.D., and Rock Rapids, Iowa.
"A couple of years ago, a national media outlet did a story about the resurgence of shoe repair shops in larger cities," Al stated.
While the income from a repair shop and his various other interests were enough to support a family of seven -- Al and Sharon have five children and 35 grandchildren -- Al said he did not know if it would support a small family these days.
"It would be tough for a young family to take over," he admitted. "But I plan to do this into my old age. We're not planning on closing the store anytime soon."
One of their grandchildren, Sharon said, has expressed interest in taking over the shop someday, "But who knows," she laughed.
Next time, before tossing that purse with the broken strap, that coat with a broken zipper or that baseball glove that needs new laces, consider stopping in Edgerton to see what Al can do.
"This morning I had a customer come in with a splint that needed repair. The weirdest one was a man who came in with a prosthetic leg that needed the straps fixed," Al chuckled. "I once found a mouse nest in a sewing machine, and one time a woman came with a clock that had fallen off a wall and shattered. It had a ton of little gears, but I got it all back together and running. I have the knack to fix a lot of things, I guess."
Brummel's Sewing & Shoes is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, and on Wednesday nights from 6:30 to 8 p.m. It is located at 801 Main St. in Edgerton.