When I walked into People’s Shoe Repair on Wetmore Avenue, I was greeted by an 86-year-old man in high-waisted trousers with a thick Greek accent and a grin as wide as 3E shoes.
Perched at a library desk with a cassette boombox of classical music, stacks of books and a portrait of Dwight Eisenhower on the wall, Mihail “Mike” Papadimitriou seemed more professor than cobbler.
Flirty cobbler, that is.
He later invited me to have a cocktail.
What’s up with this place?
The slow pace of shoe repair in an era where most shoes don’t get a second chance gives Papadimitriou some down time. He spends it reading and charming the people who filter in for chitchat or new soles. A crooked mishmash of framed pictures of Abraham Lincoln, Bill Clinton and our own Rep. Rick Larsen stare across the room at a wall festooned with shoelaces and polishes.
The tools of the trade stood at the ready behind the counter.
Papadimitriou showed me around. He put a finger on a switch of an ancient contraption that trims, burnishes, polishes, sands and grinds.
“Stand back,” he instructed.
The man and the machine came to life with a burst of noise and dust. It was like being at ground zero of a rocket launch.
High heels. Holsters. Handbags. Belts. It’s all done the old-fashioned way.
Not all shoes rate his time and affection.
In the first 30 minutes I was at his shop, a man stepped in hoping to find redemption for his beloved work boots that were splitting at the seams. Papadimitriou said it would be cheaper for him to buy a new pair and sent him on his way.
A woman called from Kenmore asking his hours. “Monday through Friday, 10 to 5:30,” he said, holding a phone tethered by a long coiled cord.
She wasn’t sure she could make it by closing. He told her he would come to the store on a Saturday morning to meet her.
He’s that kind of guy.
The next two times I went to his shop he turned away more work than he accepted, often expressing disapproval even before reading the label where the shoe was made. The massive import of cheap shoes gets his goat.
“No good. These are plastic. Nothing you can do about it,” he told several customers. He has resurrected many pairs from near-death, but he knows when a shoe is DOA.
Some owners refuse to give up.
When he told Colleen Stillabower it would be $45 to replace the broken plastic zipper on one boot, she unflinchingly told him to do it.
“Forty-five dollars,” he repeated.
“That would be fine,” she said.
“Oh, boy,” he said.
She asked him to replace the zippers on both boots. He said he’d give her a discount.
It was the Lake Stevens woman’s first time to the shop. “I found him on the internet,” she said. “I asked for the best shoemaker in Everett and his shop was the first one to pop up. Said he’d been here forever.”
People’s has been in business in Everett since 1934. It was started by Papadimitriou’s uncle, who sponsored his move here in 1967 from Greece, where he’d repaired and crafted shoes.
“I worked in 1967-68 in Seattle, before you were born,” Papadimitriou told me, winking. Told you he was a flirt. “At that time I made $2.45 an hour. I had a skill.”
He bought People’s from his uncle in 1968. He later moved the shop from Rockefeller Avenue to 2827 Wetmore Ave.
Papadimitriou used to do more than mend rips and save soles. He also made orthopedic adjustments. “If you have a pigeon toe, we put this wedge in here and make it straight,” he said in his Greek-English syntax.
His wife, Dona, died in 2013. She didn’t work in the shop with him. Not a good idea for husbands and wives to work together, he said.
His daughter, Nikki, and grandkids recently moved from Everett to North Carolina. Papadimitriou is all alone now in the town that has been his home for 50 years and the house where he’s lived almost as long.
Loneliness isn’t what bothers him. These three words make him cringe: “Made in China.”
Sure enough, that’s what it said inside my shoes, and a number of the dozens of pairs of shoes scattered, stacked and strewn about.
Don’t believe the sign that says “Not responsible for shoes left more than 30 days.”
He’s had some for two years. Every pair of shoes gets a handwritten ticket. That’s Exhibit A.
He took me on a tour of The Shoes Left Behind.
“What size do you wear?” he asked, holding up a large pair of red leather kick-ass cowboy boots.
I figured he could have sized up my feet in one glance, and I told him so. Really, can’t he spot a size 6.5 from across the room?
He shrugged and went back to offering me more shoes that people didn’t pick up.
I changed the subject to purses. “I bring out for you,” he said, then disappeared in a back room only to appear with a bevy of handbags.
Why don’t people pick up their things?
“Long stories,” he said.
He donates many unwanted items to the thrift shop run by Domestic Violence Services of Snohomish County. “I give it to them so they can sell and make money for women,” he said.
I admired the flashy leopard shoes with 6-inch platform heels that were on a shelf above the can of salmon that someone gave him for Christmas.
The average person has about 20 pairs of shoes. Papadimitriou owns six pairs, including the ones on his feet and a twin pair he keeps under his desk. That’s it.
“I hear many women say, ‘Oh, I love my shoes,’” he said. “I love people. I don’t love shoes.”
What he cares about is making his work shine and fit like a glove.
“He stretched loafers for me that were too tight,” said Gerry Provencher, who lives nearby and likes to stop by to shoot the breeze. “He’s an artist in his approach because he wants to take something that somebody cares about and is not of any use to them and bring it back to life. He takes the time and effort that an artist would take.”
Papadimitriou keeps things simple. Cash and checks only. “I don’t ask for ID,” he said. He’s had only three bad checks in almost 50 years.
“I have good customers,” he said.
He has outlived many of them.
Is the shop for sale?
Yep. Everything in it. Even him.
If you think you get to sit around all day and read and listen to music, think again.
He tells about the only person so far who expressed an interest.
“A man came from Whidbey Island and asked me to train him,” he said. “He said, ‘How long did it take you to learn this business?’ Stupid question. I say, ‘I learn every day. You stop to learn when you be dead.’ I never see him again.”
Stop by his shop. You might prance out of there in red leather boots — and a Greek cobbler on your arm.
Andrea Brown: 425-339-3443; firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @reporterbrown.