Suk Joong Oh sifts through a pile of leather shoes on his workbench in search of a pair of brown boots. The owner of the footwear has arrived to pick up her boots, but they’re not ready yet.
“Give me 10 minutes,” says Oh.
She leaves, and Oh immediately starts replacing the old, small square soles on the ends of the heels with new ones. He hammers tiny nails into each boot, grinds down the excess rubber and smooths the edges. He’s done in about seven minutes, places them on the counter and moves on to another pair.
The customer returns within one minute of Oh finishing and walks away with her newly soled boots.
This has been the working life of Oh, Chilliwack’s best-known cobbler for nearly three and a half decades.
He and his wife, Chung Kim, have owned Oh’s Western Shoes and Repair for 34 years, and at the end of the month they’re retiring and closing up shop.
Kim moved to Canada from Korea in 1976 and Oh followed in 1983. The two were married in Korea in 1982.
They took over the business — then called Cottonwood Shoe Repair in Cottonwood Mall — in 1986 from Dae Kim. Oh moved the shop to Chilliwack Mall in 2000 and at the same time changed the company name.
When he first started out as a cobbler, he had no training. He learned “a little bit” from Dae Kim.
“But mostly I learned from old shoes and customers. Customers taught me,” he says. “If I made a mistake, customers would say ‘this is not right’ and I would learn [how to fix it].”
Like the time he shaved down part of the heel of a cowboy boot on which the spur was supposed to sit. When the customer told him about the error, Oh fixed his mistake.
Over the decades, Oh, now 72 years old, repaired thousands of shoes and Kim, 67, would clean them up and polish them before handing them back to the customer.
There’s a lot of history in Oh’s store, from the wooden toolboxes to the machines. He says one of the sewing machines he uses (for the soles) is “older that I am,” and the other one for finer detailed work “was old when I started.”
In his spare time, he also enjoys photographing nature and creative writing. He has published seven books: five of Korean poetry, one of English-Korean poetry, and one is an essay about life. His poems are about “deep thoughts.”
“When I’m working, that’s when it comes to me,” he says.
He’ll stop in the middle of repairing a boot, write some words down on a piece of paper, and then return to his job as a cobbler. (Read some of his work in the images below)
Oh has repaired countless soles, zippers, heels and toes. He’s fixed high heels, winter boots, and logging boots.
He and Kim agree it’s especially nice to be able to fix shoes when it’s a challenging repair, and it’s satisfying to see the reaction of the customers.
“They trust me, that’s good,” says Oh.
But those customers have been dwindling.
There used to be about five or six cobblers in Chilliwack when they first took over the business, but over the years they’ve disappeared. Now, Oh’s is the only storefront shoe repair shop in Chilliwack.
From day one, they’ve sold boots, shoes and belts to bring in more income.
“We have retail, that’s why we can survive,” says Kim.
Getting shoes repaired simply isn’t as common as it once was. A lot of footwear is of poorer quality nowadays, plus people have so many pairs of shoes they can’t be bothered to get them repaired. It’s often cheaper and more convenient to toss them in the trash.
Plus, lots of shoes aren’t even repairable.
“In the old time, shoes were very important for people and maybe two or three pairs were enough. Now [people have] 20, 30 pairs of shoes,” Oh says.
He knows customers will be wondering where they can go to get their shoes repaired once they close, but unfortunately there’s no store nearby.
“These days it’s really hard to recommend a shoe repairman,” he says. “I can’t have my business forever, I’m aged already.”
It was a “hard life for 34 years,” adds Kim, and it was a “lot of work to actually survive,” but Chilliwack made it all worth it.
“Thank you for all your support for us. We appreciate that,” says Kim.
So, on Thursday, Oct. 31, Oh and Kim will be locking up their store for the last time and will be heading into a much-needed break.
They will continue to live in Chilliwack, a place they’ve called home for more than 35 years.
“This is my hometown, Chilliwack. I don’t know what it is exactly, but it’s different [than other cities in B.C.],” says Oh. “That means I know I’m home here.”