After more than six decades of taking care of other people’s feet, cobbler Clarence Walter said it’s time to rest his own.
When he turns 90 later this year, the owner of Gem Shoe Repair & Leather Goods will be retired. He’s taking bittersweet steps this summer to close the shop, with plans to perform only selected repairs in July and cease operations in August.
“I cannot work as fast as I used to,” Walter said simply, noting that he’s tried everything from compression stockings to back supporters, but standing all day in his workshop running industrial equipment aggravates his arthritis and wears him out.
Generations of customers who depend on Walter’s services, especially his expertise in orthotic work, have been stopping in this summer to say goodbye and have final repairs done on their favorite shoes and handbags.
When they step inside Gem Shoe Repair, the store looks much the same as it did back when Walter first purchased it in 1959, all the way down to the original cash register, a huge chunk of metal and wood, which still handles daily transactions (although there’s also a credit card reader).
Gem was first located where Bank of America is, but it relocated to the narrow storefront at 4922 E. Second St. in 1967. Today, there’s a store closing sign out front, and shoes and leather goods are priced down and waiting for buyers.
In the cobbler’s back workspace, industrial sewing machines and sanders from bygone days are still put to good use. Piles of neatly stacked shoes are wrapped carefully in brown paper bags and labeled with their owners’ names for easy pick-up.
All of the equipment and spare leather and other parts will be packed up soon, shipped to Arkansas where Walter’s son Aaron is continuing the family business.
Like the generations of customers who come through the doors, generations of the Walter family have been in cobbling. Walter learned the trade himself as a teenager in Kansas, helping out in his uncle’s store and then later working with his brother there where they started Walter’s Shoes.
His only break from shoes was during the Korean Conflict, when he was stationed in Panama. He was a newlywed at the time, married to a woman named Patty from California, and he knew he wanted to open a shoe shop in her home state.
The couple had two children and six grandchildren in their 41 years together before Patty’s passing. Their daughter, Diane, regularly helps out at Gem Shoe Repair and customers know her well.
Faded family photographs and worn drawings from now-adult children are pasted on the walls of Gem’s workspace, overseeing Walter as he handles an average workload of 20 to 25 shoes that need repairs at any given time.
Now that he’s retiring, he said he’s looking forward to enjoying more time with his family and going on cruises with his girlfriend Nancy Exley, who’s been by his side for nearly two decades.
Walter said he will miss regularly seeing his many friends in Belmont Shore.
“We’ve had generations of customers,” he said. “Kids come in grown up, and they come back and stop in. They’ll come in and give you a hug.”
For details about Gem Shoe Repair & Leather Goods, call 562-439-7524. There’s no website and the store is closed on Sundays and Mondays.