Austin Brown is at home on a recent Thursday deep cleaning a friend’s pair of classic black Reeboks with a yellow heel. The sneakers are not in bad shape, but they need a little work. Luckily, he has all the tools required to restore them to their former glory.
“I am a shoe doctor,” Brown, 48, said.
Professionally known as The Hood Cobbler, Brown specializes in repairing and cleaning high-end sneakers.
The Oakland native’s living room is a shoe-cleaning laboratory. The entranceway is lined with shelves stacked with dirty Air Jordans of various colorways and models. Cleaning solvents, scalpels, and measuring tools sit on top of his work desk. Washed sneakers like the Reeboks dry inside a large, rectangular contraption that Brown calls the ice box. The UV lights inside the ice box produce a loud, humming noise that Brown listens to for hours while he cleans several shoes each day.
“I’ve done a lot of different jobs in my life and this is the one I enjoy,” Brown said. “I have a passion for shoes and the customers that I service.”
The Hood Cobbler is one example of the repair shops found throughout Oakland and the greater Bay Area. Numerous people earn a living fixing things, but the future of local repair shops isn’t guaranteed. Consumer spending has been on the rise for years, but there are signs of a national slowdown for retailers. It’s unclear whether a decline in retail spending means more people are opting to fix things like clothing, tools, watches, and electronics. Repair shop owners are facing challenges due to the proliferation of cheap and disposable products and changes in consumer choice. The craftspeople who can mend a broken instrument or get a watch ticking again are also contending with the problem of finding people who they can pass their skills—and shops—down to.
The Oaklandside set out to understand how local repair businesses are doing, the role they serve in their neighborhoods, and if the art of repair is still a profitable endeavor.
Not all kinds of repair are profitable, but cultural changes create new opportunities
Kathryn Hyde, a former waste and recycling manager for UCSF, spent the last three years interviewing more than 30-50 Bay Area repair businesses, including The Hood Cobbler, to learn about the state of the industry. Hyde and a couple of her friends are working on a book project entitled ReThink Repair, which spotlights the work of craftspersons and adapting to economic change.
For any kind of item that can be repaired, Hyde has spoken to the person who brings that product back to life. “Baseball mitts, sneakers, mannequins, cast iron skillets, musical instruments, knives, neon lights, bowling balls, phones of course, cable cars, dolls, wheelchairs,” she said. “We’re very open-minded.”
The success of a repair shop, Kathryn said, depends on whether the item is in high demand and used frequently. Someone who restores glass dolls will have less business than a wheelchair repair person. Even cobblers, who specialize in restoring well-made dress shoes, are finding it hard to maintain a steady clientele. “I mentioned shoe repair and the cobblers say people are buying cheaper shoes, they’re not worth repairing,” Hyde said.
That’s why Brown’s professional moniker as The Hood Cobbler is a misnomer. Although he trained for four years under cobblers in East Oakland and Antioch, his business is dependent on deep-cleaning sneakers. “It’s a very different clientele. Most people that call me for cobbling stuff are older people or young ladies, and that’s once in a while too, for fixing heels,” Brown said.
In 2018, Brown recognized this cultural shift by looking at what the people in his life and in his neighborhood wore. He loved sneakers, his wife and kids are sneakerheads, and all his friends wore nice kicks for every occasion. “I have kids, so I was cleaning my own shoes and cleaning my kids’ shoes. I was trying to learn from youtube videos but a lot of the people making the videos don’t really know what they’re doing,” he said.
He eventually learned how to clean shoes from his friend Akeem Anifowoshe, the founder of shoe cleaning product company NuLife Kicks. Brown also comes from a trades background and the skills he learned doing custodial work and car detailing translated well.
Restoring sneakers turned out to be profitable. A slowdown in retail consumption, including reduced sales of new sneakers, has led to more business for cleaners, said Brown.
“Right now I get more customers because of the economy,” he said.” People don’t want to spend money on new shoes.” Brown’s prices vary but a touch-up can start at $55 compared to dropping as much as $500 on a new pair of Air Jordans.
Still, he’s working out of his house and has to be careful with pickups and deliveries since sneaker theft is an issue faced by retailers. Brown thinks that owning a brick-and-mortar shop in the near future will help elevate the profession he loves so much.
“I love these shoes, I treat them with a lot of care,” said Brown.
Skills are not being passed on to the next generation
While new repair shop owners like The Hood Cobbler are just getting started, Hyde says others who have been in the game for decades are trying to figure out who will take over when they retire.
“I think that some of them, you could tell, were very sad that their children did not want to take over the business,” Hyde said. One thing she hears a lot is that people’s children want to work in tech and earn lots of money rather than picking up a repair trade. For some shop owners, this means considering early retirement and closing their stores.
“None of the repair shops are making much money,” said Hyde.
Some owners, like 95-year-old Steve Stevahn of The Shaver and Cutlery Shop on Telegraph Avenue, are continuing to work until they can’t anymore. “I have to have something to do and I don’t want to sit at home, so this is what I do,” Stevahn said.
Originally from Bismark, North Dakota, Stevahn moved to the East Bay and in his 30s began working for Schick Electric on Broadway selling razors, kitchen knives, and electric hair clippers.
In 1963, the razor company went bankrupt. “I had to go around and close all the stores, but then I kept the Oakland store myself,” Stevahn said. He rebranded as Shaver and Cutlery and eventually moved to various locations up and down Telegraph Ave. until settling in the Northgate neighborhood a few years ago.
Stevahn says he is thankful to run the store with his son Mike Stevahn, 64, who started working there as a kid. “I studied engineering at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and worked at Lockheed for about eight years. But they laid off a lot of people so I came back to help run the shop and I stayed,” Mike said.
The father and son duo sells everything from old-fashioned barbers blades to model swords and top-quality kitchen knives. The main draw, however, is their knife repair and sharpening service. They also repair electric hair clippers. Shave and Cutlery’s main source of revenue is providing these fixes to local restaurants and barber shops at a reasonable price. “We could be doing better but you have to live with the times, you know,” Steve said.
Stevahn can’t work on the Clippers anymore because he’s “too old” so Mike handles that job.
Even at the age of 95, however, Stevahn knows how to sharpen a blade. He takes a large chef knife out of a case and then heads to the back of the store where he effortlessly sharpens it in under a minute. Then he takes out a large strip of newspaper and showcases the knife’s improved quality by cutting into the paper like butter.
“You just have to own the right equipment and know the metal of the blade. Some are soft, some are hard. You have to keep doing it,” Stevahn said.
The dilemma that The Shave and Cutlery Shop will face in the coming years is not having anyone to pass the business on to after Mike retires. Besides his son, Stevahn has yet to teach anyone else the art of knife repair. That’s mainly because no one has asked to learn.
“Nobody’s asked but if they’re interested I’m very happy to teach them and they can take over if they want,” Stevahn said.
Stevahn wants to entrust The Shaver and Cutlery Shop to someone who has the money to purchase it and will also provide quality service to his customers.
“We’re an honest operation. I mean, we are not phony or try to fool people, you know. We do the right thing and do it right,” Stevahn said.
A community focus helps foster steady revenue
Hyde, the researcher studying repair shops, says that these businesses don’t just provide a valuable service, they also become community hubs where people can gather. That’s why a neighborhood loses a piece of its character when a shop closes for good. “I think the community [that benefits from these businesses] are going to have to push for them,” Hyde said.
Such is the case of Oakland Guitars, a guitar repair shop on 40th Street. Formerly known as Broken Guitars, the small storefront was founded in 2015 by Pinhead Gunpowder’s Bill Schnieder and Green Day’s Billie Jo Armstrong and catered to the East Bay’s rock aficionados. The shop almost closed in 2022 as a result of the pandemic.
“They were looking to close and [Bill] sent me a text and said ‘Hey do you want a guitar shop,’” said Johnny Morales, the current co-owner.
Morales and co-owner Theresa Gurrey weren’t full-time musicians like their counterparts. Morales was formerly in IT and Gurrey still works as a nurse but both loved the East Bay’s rock scene and played guitar in their spare time. Morales had also always been a tinkerer and had a fascination with stripping machines and putting them back together, so he started teaching himself how to fix guitars.
Morales hung out at the shop throughout the years and would bring his guitars in for repair, but stopped once the Bay Area’s shelter-in-place order closed non-essential businesses.
When he got the text from Schneider, he decided he’d put his skills to use to try and keep Broken Guitars going under a new name. “I was looking to exit my career and luckily this opportunity presented itself so now I’m running the store full-time,” Morales said.
Morales and Gurrey have kept most of the aesthetic touches that Schneider and Armstrong left behind. Several broken guitars demolished during Green Day tours are plastered onto the ceiling. Copies of iconic rock, ska, and punk show flyers are wheat pasted onto the walls. And a collection of beautiful, well-made guitars is displayed throughout.
What the new owners have set out to do in the past several months is be intentional in opening up the space to musicians beyond the rock and punk scene. Signs outside the shop show support for trans people’s rights and accepting folks from all racial backgrounds. New posters on the left side of the wall highlight other genres and the wider musical traditions of Oakland. Some new clientele includes touring bands that play everything from jazz to gospel to country music.
“We’re trying to create a space that wherever you are on your musical journey, we want to meet you there,” Morales said. “Whether you’re 12 or you’re 47, we wanna help you find your musical voice and your outlet, because music saves lives and brings people together.”.
The original owners still contribute to the community spirit of the store as well. Oakland Guitars recently held an event where they gave away instruments supplied by Green Day to neighborhood kids.
Morales said customers are consistently coming in to have their instruments repaired and that this makes up most of its revenue. He’s had to hire a couple of technicians because of the high demand.
“Because music is such an important staple in the East Bay and San Francisco, that’s why you have so many cats out here who are learning how to play,” he said.
Shops like Oakland Guitar, The Hood Cobbler, and The Shaver and Cutlery Shop have so far been able to benefit from the neighborhood aspect of their business and maintain a local clientele that’s sustaining them through tough times. Hyde says that throughout the dozens of interviews she’s conducted with repair shop owners, a common thread has emerged, showing what makes these shops successful.
“They’re craftspeople, they’re artists, and they’re engineers because they’re kind of redesigning a broken product,” said Hyde. “They’re very intelligent, precise people and they’re very committed to their craft. I want people to keep buying durable products that can be repaired so we can have a healthier, more environmentally conscious economy.”