The shoe fits, and Wulf wears it: Bob Wulf approaching 32 years as owner of Worthington Shoe Repair
cob·bler [kob-ler] - noun
- a person who mends shoes.
WORTHINGTON -- As a noun, cobbler has varied definitions. For the purposes of this story, refer to definition No. 1 -- a person who mends shoes. Although not utilized much any more, it's a term that applies to Bob Wulf, owner of Worthington Footwear & Repair, located at 914 Third Ave. in downtown Worthington. He's been cobbling together shoes and boots -- and repairing other assorted stuff and selling footwear along the way -- for more than 30 years.
"I bought (the business) in 1979, so I'm coming up on 32 years in August," said Wulf.
Originally from Aberdeen, S.D., Wulf was a young husband and father living in Bemidji when he decided to give the shoe repair trade a try.
"I was going to school parttime and driving truck parttime, and I needed to get off the road and find something that would help pay some of the bills," Wulf explained. "I had some of my VA money left, so I decided to go to Minneapolis to school."
A shoe repair shop was for sale in Bemidji at the time -- planting the idea that it might be a good trade to pursue. But Wulf elected to get the necessary training rather than delve right into a shop. After the 12-month program at the Minneapolis vocational school, he landed a job in the Twin Cities.
"I went to work for a Hungarian shoemaker. He did custom shoes. Bela Lucas was his name. I did the repair work and some orthopedic adjustments. He also had a shop in the Rosedale shopping mall -- his son and daughter-in-law were running that one -- and I did time at both places."
An ad about a shoe repair business for sale in southwest Minnesota caught his eye, and Wulf purchased the Worthington shop from Charlie Berry, who was buying it on contract from original owners Ralph and Norma Rienstra.
"I paid Charlie off and assumed the contract," Wulf said. "It was next to The Printers back then, just a little hole in the wall. It didn't even have a back door."
Because of its tiny size, the store didn't have much room for inventory, so the focus was primarily on repair work. Then in January 1981, Wulf moved to the current location, across from the Nobles County Government Center.
Through the three decades since, Wulf had witnessed many changes in his profession. People aren't as apt to get their footwear repaired as they once were, but not necessarily because it's a more disposable society.
"I'd venture to say you can't make a living just in shoe repair anymore," Wulf reflected. "They're using better rubber, and soles don't wear out like they used to."
In the 1980s, a company introduced the use of urethane rubber for soles, and most footwear companies followed suit. Instead of completely replacing the rubber, Wulf will apply a retread.
"It wears forever," he said. "Most all companies have gone to a rubber blend that wears for the life of the shoe. We still do new soles and heels, but not as much as we used to. In a small shop, it used to be 90 percent repair, 10 percent retail. Now, it's probably the opposite, or maybe 15 percent repair. Retail has taken over most of my time."
On the retail side, Wulf specializes in Red Wing and Wolverine products, also selling Minnetonka moccasins -- popular for slippers during the holiday season. Many of his customers seek specialized footwear for work, such as steel-toed boots, and Wulf keeps a record of what each customer buys for future reference.
"Safety shoes are my biggest selling product, the No. 1 item," he noted. "When I first started out, it used to be the farm shoe."
Wulf is proud to deal in quality products, and he tries to stock a range of styles with the ability to order specific sizes and styles within a few days.
"They wear good and make a quality product," he said about the Red Wing shoes and boots that fill up one whole wall of the shop. "Red Wing offers a 30-day trial period, even if they've been used, and if they just don't work out for you, you can bring them back and exchange them for something else. They also have an indefinite warranty on defects. If something's defective -- a sole splits or something -- they stand behind their product. But it's rare that we see a sole split.
"Red Wing also offers a heat-moldable insert as well," he continued. "You warm it up in the oven, and while it's still warm, you walk on it and it shapes to the foot. We've been selling the heck out of them."
To help customers keep their footwear in good shape, Wulf offers a wide variety of shoe-care products, including polishes in a rainbow of colors rarely seen elsewhere. He also sells leather belts.
When he's not fitting shoes or boots for a customer, Wulf can be found in the back of the shop, repairing boots, shoes, zippers, leather goods and whatever else a customer brings in for him to fix. On this particular day, he has to turn down a request to fix a tow rope, due to OSHA regulations. But for the most part, if it can be sewn, he'll do it.
"I fix saddle bags, tents, canvas for small things like boats, tool pouches that carpenters bring in, boat tiedowns," he listed. "There's a lot of zipper work in the wintertime, and I have an extra part-timer who helps me keep up with that. Brian Rogers has worked for me since high school."
People often bring in jackets, expecting to have the entire zipper replaced, but that's not always necessary, Wulf advised.
"We fix as many as we replace -- probably more than we replace. A lot of times, that's all they need is a new slide, something like that. Probably 70 percent of the time, people come in and think they need a new zipper, but they only need a pull, and we can do that within a minute or two. But we do have the zippers," he said, pointing to a display hanging on the wall, "if they do need one."
Two industrial sewing machines inhabit the back of the shop -- a foot-operated treadle model for smaller items, the electric model for larger pieces of material that require more maneuvering.
"The Singer patcher (treadle model) is probably from the '60s," Wulf detailed. "Ralph (Rienstra) said he bought that new. You don't really need a motor for shoes; working in such a small space, you don't need the power."
An even bigger machine has a specialized purpose -- stitching along the tight curve of a cowboy boot.
"It just catches the edge," said Wulf.
And finally, there's the shoe finisher, manufactured by Landis and probably dating to the 1950s.
"I've seen some with leather belts, and this one has rubber belts," Wulf noted about the indicator that it's a "newer" model. "We use it to trim everything up," using sanding discs, "and the shine brushes for finishing up afterward."
Heel and sole replacements are stacked on shelves above the finisher, and scattered about are a few odd implements that aid in his craft, such as a bunion stretcher, which molds the leather to fit the bulge a bunion creates on the foot, and wooden shoe stretchers of various sizes. There's also an assortment of glues and solvents -- smelly, but necessary to the trade.
Wulf works in the shop from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday -- the extended hours giving shift workers time to come in and order their footwear -- and 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday. Running his own business -- most of the time by himself -- can be demanding but also rewarding.
His three daughters -- Cori, Jordan and Kendall -- are all grown and live in the Twin Cities, and he has four grandchildren.
"I'm glad they're all in one place," for the occasions when he can go and visit, Wulf said.
But most of his time is spent at the Worthington store, and for the time being, he's content for it to be that way.
"I'll know when I'm ready to retire," Wulf said. "I'll be 61 in May, so I think I'll hang in for another eight, nine years. As long as I feel good, I'll come to work."