A sole calling: Bank Street Cobbler 'makes honest living'

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New London — Cobbler Christos Armoutsoglou hasn’t got patience for cut-rate shoes.

“What I’m selling here is time, and if the quality of the shoe is not worth it, I’m not going to do it,” says Armoutsoglou, 73, who has been gluing, hammering, stitching and polishing shoes as the Bank Street Cobbler for 41 years.

When a customer comes in, Armoutsoglou assesses the job and if the cost of his repair will exceed the value of the shoe, or not adequately extend its life, he’ll decline the work. Sometimes customers will try to coax him, but he won’t budge.

“Some people, I tell them, if they buy Payless shoes I’m not the person to repair for them because they pay like $27 and I tell them $37 to repair and I tell them, 'You have to be really brainless to leave your shoes to be repaired,'” says Armoutsoglou, who has been in this country almost 50 years and still carries a heavy accent from his native Greece.

His honesty is sometimes mistaken for brusqueness but Armoutsoglou is OK with that.

“I grew up to be honest and I’m not a compromiser and I say the truth,” he says. “If they want to hear lies, they are asking the wrong guy. Simple as that.”

Trained as a shoemaker near his native Athens, Armoutsoglou was enticed to come to the United States by a major shoe manufacturer in 1970. He was 23 at the time and found his way to New London after the promised job with the Brown Shoe Company in Richmond, Va., never materialized.

He and a friend had arrived in New York City and through an acquaintance made a connection that led to a job as a cook in New London at the former 95 House restaurant. Armoutsoglou admits that when he came to the city he didn’t even know where Connecticut, let alone New London, was.

In Greece, he had worked from about the age of 15 at a shoe factory and part-time repairing shoes for a local cobbler. But it would be almost a decade after his arrival in the U.S. before Armoutsoglou bought the Bank Street Cobbler. He says the business has been in existence in downtown New London for about 120 years and that he is the third owner.

The shop at 193 Bank St. is across from Mambo’s and next door to Sweetie’s Bakery & Café, and it’s a throwback in time.

Across the country, high-quality leather shoes have been replaced by low-cost, imported footwear fashioned from man-made materials that Armoutsoglou likens to plastic and says damages feet.

Today, about 5,000 cobblers work in the country, according to the Shoe Service Institute of America. In the 1930s, there were more than 100,000. But there are still customers with quality leather shoes — or purses, backpacks or jackets — who come looking for repairs, keeping the Bank Street Cobbler busy.

Tools, leather, shoes

As he rips and burns a broken zipper out of a woman’s tall black leather boot, Armoutsoglou explains that some of his customers today also were customers of the prior owner, from whom he bought the business in the late 1970s.

He’s standing behind his cobbler’s last — the metal mechanical form that has fittings shaped like human feet — where he can attach a shoe and replace soles and heels and do other work.

He uses contact cement or super glue, and a machine that applies pressure to securely attach the new bottom. There are two ancient stitching machines, two more “finishers” with sandpaper to smooth out repairs, another gizmo for patching, and a compressor. Tools are strewn everywhere — straight knives, curved knifes, files, scissors, pliers. Pieces of leather are piled around the shop and in the back room.

And there are lots and lots of shoes — some in boxes, and some in various states of repair.

Customers are quoted a price when Armoutsoglou accepts a job, and a blue ticket is attached to the items to be repaired and the customer pays beforehand. Some jobs are relatively simple, and others more complicated and time-consuming. He can add prosthetic inserts or soles, and for a time, sold a line of orthopedic shoes. But it is repairs — and a lot of new soles and heels — that are the mainstay of his business.

For several years now, he has employed two interns, brothers who are family friends. Justin Salm, 24, is the younger brother and plans to attend medical school, but his time with Armoutsoglou has provided more than cobbler training.

“I love a lot about the daily life of a cobbler,” Salm says. “There is something quite romantic about working with your hands to make an honest living, doing honest work, being your own boss.”

But what he values most, he says, is the time spent with Armoutsoglou, who has shared his work ethic, understanding of entrepreneurship and appreciation of the local small-business community.

“I have endless respect and immense admiration for my boss, whose teachings continue to inform me more about life than about the art of cobbling,” Salm says.

Citizen since 1976

Although he never worked for the Brown Shoe Company, Armoutsoglou is forever grateful that it recruited him and helped him immigrate to America.

“They gave me the right to come to this beautiful country of ours,” he says, explaining he became a U.S. citizen on the bicentennial in 1976.

After the 95 House, he worked at another now gone but longtime popular eatery in New London, Ye Olde Tavern, and as a painter before meeting his wife, settling down and raising two daughters.

He prides himself on doing quality work and using the best products — Vibram soles and leather. He knows his reputation, and that some people find it rude that he won’t repair their shoes or belongings.

He tells the story of a 78-year-old customer who brought in a belt he’d worn since high school and asked the cobbler to put new snaps on it.

“I say to him, ‘Mr. So and So, I’m not able to do that,’” he says, explaining the man had already gotten good use out of the belt. “And I say to him, 'Get a belt from me, and it will last you another 40 years and we will still be friends.'"

“He can wear my belt until he’s 120,” Armoutsoglou says, laughing.

Business Snapshot

What: Bank Street Cobbler

Where: 193 Bank St., New London

Who: Owner Christos "Chris" Armoutsoglou

Hours: Open Tuesday to Friday 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Contact: (860) 443-1122

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