The 800 block of South Wenatchee Avenue has seen considerable change over the last half century. Many businesses have come and gone, but one of the shops has withstood all the challenges of change.
And a large version of Old Glory proudly hangs in its storefront window.
“We still keep doing the same old thing,” said Craig Wentz, owner of Neal’s Shoe Store and Repair, 811 S. Wenatchee Ave.
That “same old thing” is a shop reminiscent of days gone by that smells of leather and features a highly skilled craftsman working hard to keep his customers’ feet happy in comfortable footwear.
“We’re still helping people fit themselves properly to a pair of shoes or boots,” said Wentz, who runs the shop with Chuck Morse, a 12-year employee. “We provide them the arch supports and foot beds they need to help solve the problems they have with their feet. We also do orthopedic work — sole lifts as prescribed by doctors.”
Foot problems, such as plantar fasciitis and chronic tendon pain, are often caused by poorly manufactured and ill-fitting shoes and boots. And when the customer needs new shoes or boots, Wentz will take the time to measure the foot’s length, width and arch, because all feet are different and they are always changing, he said.
Neal’s Shoe Store and Repair specializes in quality shoes and boots, with an emphasis on American-made. The store’s main brands include Danner, White Boots, Hathorn, Wolverine and Thorogood. Its western boot lines are H&H, Tony Lama and Nocona. It also carries Superfeet insoles and hosiery by leading manufacturers Lorpen, Thorlo and Wigwam.
“Quality socks are the most important thing in foot comfort, and one of the first things overlooked,” Wentz said.
When it comes to repairing shoes and boots, there are many customers throughout Central Washington who appreciate Wentz’s craftsmanship and skill. He has a four-week turnaround, even after putting in 50-hour weeks.
“This stuff takes time,” Wentz explained. “We don’t do things part way. There are many ways to do things wrong and only one way to do things right.”
That do-things-the-right-way attitude has kept the doors open in this Wenatchee shoe repair store while similar stores in surrounding communities such as Moses Lake, Ritzville and Ellensburg have fallen by the wayside.
Wentz knows why the others have gone out of business. He has had a difficult time himself dealing with the rising costs of doing business and finding skilled labor to work in his shop.
“I’m afraid we’re one of the last of a dying breed because skilled craftsmen are nearing retirement age and we’re not teaching basic trade skills in our schools to do this kind of work anymore,” Wentz said. “It used to be that each town had its own blacksmith, grocery store, car dealer and shoe repair shop. As a society, we’re not perpetuating the skills necessary to carry on many trades.”
Wentz sees several problems complicating the issue of finding qualified workers. First, is low wages for this type of hard blue-collar work.
“In this age of computers and high-paying jobs in the digital sector, it’s tough to get young people interested in basic trades that offer comparatively low wages,” he said.
Secondly, excessive government regulation has caused businesses to move operations to other countries and has all but cut off supplies from domestic manufacturers.
“My costs for basic supplies have skyrocketed because most of my suppliers have moved their manufacturing businesses overseas,” Wentz said. “And government regulations have closed tanneries. We need to be able to tan hides in the United States.”
And, thirdly, many of Wentz’s supply prices are dependent on world and national politics, such as the price of a barrel of crude oil. The high price of oil is a double whammy for Wentz’s business — it increases the cost of his supplies as well as the cost of shipping them.
It was a different world when Wentz’s father, Neal, bought the existing shoe repair business in 1942. Neal was a talented machinist, and he made parts for different airplanes at Boeing Aircraft during the onset of World War II. The store was located on the same block it is now, but in tighter quarters and tougher economic times. Wentz still has a journal his father kept during the early years of the business, and it paints a bleak picture of what life as a shoe repairman was like then.
The effects of the Great Depression lingered on in a country that was in the middle of a major war effort, and factories across the nation had been refitted to support the war. The American people sacrificed for the good of the country, and shoe repair was considered an honorable and necessary trade. The manufacture of shoe repair equipment was in its heyday, and major companies such as Goodyear invented commercial sewing equipment capable of handling the tough shoe materials.
In 1960, Neal moved his equipment into the new shop at 811 S. Wenatchee Ave. that he had custom-built for the shoe repair business.
“We still use my dad’s vintage equipment that was manufactured during WWII,” Wentz said. “Our Landis sole-stitching machine and Adler long-arm sewing machine were well-built and continue to provide great service.”
But shoe sales and repair isn’t all Neal’s Shoe Store does. If an item can fit on one of its sewing machines, the shop can fix it, Wentz said.
That was good news for Matt Black, operations manager at Mission Ridge Ski Resort, when he approached Wentz last fall with a custom sewing job. The seat covers on the Liberator high speed quad chairlift were in need of repair, and a visit to Neal’s Shoe Store paid off.
“It was important to Mission Ridge to keep the job local,” Black said. “Craig did a professional job sewing about 250 seats covers. Every one of them was perfect.”
For Wentz, a side benefit of doing the work on the Liberator seats was it got him into downhill skiing.
“I had a blast learning to ski at 54,” he said. “And I’m looking forward to hitting the slopes again this winter.”
How does Wentz view the future of his business in today’s world?
“The business looks good as long as I stay healthy and keep doing the right thing,” Wentz said. “Since I’m doing all of the repair work myself, I thank my customers for their patience. Experience is going to keep this business going.”