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One Sole At A Time

Dec 6, 2017

Chad Scoular repairs boots and other leather goods inside a small shop in downtown Rapid City.

Chad Scoular is making a go of it in an endangered trade — shoe repair. "In the fifties, there were six shops in this town [Rapid City]. Now there's one, and that's us,” Scoular says. “The closest one is Sheridan, Wyoming. The others [in the region] are Vermillion and Sioux Falls.

"It's getting to be a throw-away society. It's getting tough to fix things too. It's almost cheaper to buy a new pair than to go get it fixed."

Fortunately for him, there's a particular type of footwear, common in this region, that people like to hold onto for a while.  

"Our primary business is cowboy boots. That's what we love to do," he says.

"I have a five-state market. And because we are so rural, everyone is a rancher. They wear cowboy boots. And cowboy boots aren't cheap. They’re a tool. You have to have them to do your work. And if you get a good pair of cowboy boots that you like, it's cheaper to get them fixed than to buy a new pair.

"There's a lot of shoe repair places in New York and New Jersey, and you see them on Facebook repairing thousand dollar dress shoes. Well, we just don't see that here. I'll get a thousand dollar pair of cowboy boots in, but I just don't see the dress shoes. But that's okay, because I like the cowboy boots."

Every repair has to meet with Scoular's approval. That's why he believes he has such a loyal customer base.

In addition to shoes, the shop fixes other leather goods. "Purses, you name it. If it can be riveted, stitched or glued — if we can fix it, we'll do it."

Scoular's first forays into leatherwork were in his father's basement shop outside of Denver, Colorado. (His father was a diesel mechanic who made saddles on the side.) "We lived on a small acreage and had horses and cattle and hogs and everything." He grew up rodeoing — riding saddle broncs — and naturally gravitated towards building saddles, tack and chaps.  

After high school, he left home to attend National American University in Rapid City, where he ended up working at Bob's. "I always had an interest in shoes and boots and being a broke college kid, I needed some money. Bob had a sign in the door. He put me to work and taught me everything I needed to get started."

Bob Wessel Sr. started Bob's Shoe Repair in 1946. His son, Bob Jr., and wife Lori, took over in 1979 and ran the shop until Bob Jr. died suddenly in 2009. Scoular was doing other things at the time, but Lori reached out to see if he would be interested in taking over. He was. 

At first, he had to learn fast. Bob had taught him some things, but not everything. 

"I didn't have anyone to show me how to run [the outsole stitcher], so I had to learn on my own. There were a lot of nights spent down here practicing. About ten thousand more pair and I'll be good at it."

Many of the machines and tools Scoular works with — like his Landis outsole stitcher — are antiques or aren't made any more. "There's fifteen hundred moving parts on this one machine. They used to have guys that come out once a year and tune up your machinery, but that went away thirty years ago. Now, you've got to fix them yourself and hope that nothing breaks because parts for these are expensive. But there's not a whole lot of margin to make a lot of money to go buy new machinery, so you just use the old stuff."

Scoular's one hired hand is Clay Banyai, who is also somewhat of a leather artist.

The long nights have paid off (in a shoe repair kind of way). The community that supported the shop through the Wessel years has stood by it.  

"I tell you what," says frequent customer Shane, who stops in while waiting for a haircut next door, "there's talent streaming out of these guys." Shane is referring to Scoular and his only hired hand, Clay Banyai. He points out a framed, tooled-leather art piece Banyai created, featuring a pheasant, in the display case in front of the store. He particularly admires the detail on the three-dimensional pheasant head.

"It's fun," says Scoular of shoe repair. "It's the type of job that everything is done with your hands. Everything that we touch has to have my approval on it before it goes out the door. If you want to have a quality product, you have to take pride in everything that you do. And that's why we have a loyal customer base. I have people ship me stuff from Oregon, Florida, Minnesota, Colorado."

Maybe one day the disposable epoch will end, shoe repair shops will spring up like Starbucks, and conspiracy theories will abound about Big Shoe Repair suppressing self-fixing shoes. For now though, even minus a revival, Chad Scoular's place on Main Street seems secure. 

"My goal is to make a hundred years. As long as things go the way they are, I think we're gonna make it. After that I'm done."

Michael Zimny is the social media engagement specialist for South Dakota Public Broadcasting in Vermillion. He blogs for SDPB and contributes arts columns to the South Dakota Magazine website.

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