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Athens Cobbler Practices "Dying Art" by Holly Hollman

ATHENS, Ala. (AP) — Dust particles dance in the dim light at Dobbs Shoe Shop as Mike Latimer grinds a custom sneaker sole for an orthopedic patient.

Grit and black polish outline his calloused fingertips. The smells of beeswax, used for polishing, and cement glue, used to bind soles and heels, combine with the aroma of cut leather.

Shoes ranging in style from black boots to leopard print heels to neon green slip-ons line a shelf in the middle of the room.

These smells, scenes and Latimer's work as a cobbler are part of a dying art, he says. Shoe Service Institute of America backs his claim, stating there are about 7,000 shoe repair shops remaining in the country.

"You have shops in malls that don't do it the old-fashioned way, and the quality isn't the same," Latimer says as a train's horn blares through his shop's open door on a sunny June day. "We still do it the old-fashioned way."

Latimer's shop and its location near the railroad have remained unchanged since 1961, when Latimer's grandfather, J.C. Dobbs, moved his shoe repair business to 110 W. Market St. in downtown Athens.

He works with tools that his grandfather used when he bought the business at another location in 1945.

"These machines are much older than my 47 years and still work well," he says.

Business licenses dating back 64 years are tacked to a clipboard on the wall. Prior to its Market Street location, Dobbs Shoe Shop operated in the Pinnacle building on the square.

Mildred Latimer, Dobbs' daughter and Mikes mother, says her father came to Athens after his military service, and he worked for the store's owner, Ike Carney.

"Dad was from Walker County, and the only reason I know of that he came to Athens was that he was looking for work," she says. "He worked for Ike a while and then bought the store."

The Dobbs family lived upstairs and operated the store downtown.

As a teen, Mildred Latimer helped with the family business. Her brother Jimmy Dobbs once made customized boots for Alabama Coach Gene Stallings and Auburn Coach Pat Dye.

"I swore I wouldn't marry anyone who was in the shoe business," she says, and shrugs her shoulders at her story's irony.

She didn't marry a cobbler, but after she married Bill Latimer, he got a job from her dad.

Mildred Latimer still works in the store, and her husband has turned to politics, becoming a Limestone County commissioner.

While her husband paves roads, she sews straps on purses and buckles on sandals. Until recently, she would customize as many as 60 boots a year for high school majorettes and University of North Alabama Pride of Dixie Band majorettes and Lionettes.

"It was time consuming and hard on my hands," Mildred Latimer says, glancing at her fingers. "You have to take the lining apart, measure their legs, cut excess material and sew the lining back."

Her son, Mike Latimer, grew up watching television in a back room of the Market Street location and playing in the downtown buildings. He started working in the shop shining shoes at age 12 to earn money for a bicycle.

"I made enough and had that bike about a year before it got stolen," Mike Latimer says.

That theft was a disappointment, but Mike Latimer learned a trade and that he loved to work with his hands.

"It's relaxing for me," he says as he burnishes a new sole with beeswax on a polishing wheel.

The store can have over 1,000 shoes waiting for repair and receives some by mail from those who have family or friends in Athens.

"We have a lady from New York who used to be on the show 'Baywatch' who sends her shoes to us," Mike Latimer says. "Cowboys come in to have work done on their boots during the Sheriff's Rodeo. We get a lot of word-of-mouth business."

Randy Lipson, owner of Cobblestone Shoe Repair in Missouri and a board member of the Shoe Service Institute of America, says cobblers are hurting in factory dependent places like Detroit. But he says the downturn in the economy could help cobblers elsewhere because people cannot afford to buy new shoes. At Dobbs Shoe Shop, repair prices range from $3 to $41.50.

Lack of business is not threatening Dobbs Shoe Shop. The threat is no replacement for Mike Latimer when he is gone.

Mildred Latimer says attitude hampers the future of such fix-it type businesses.

"It used to be that every town had a shoe repair business, but we've become a throwaway society," Mildred Latimer says. "It gets broke, we throw it away and buy more. Because of that, there's not a demand to learn this trade or other trades."

Mike Latimer's children are not interested in the trade, and no one has expressed interest in learning from him how to repair shoes "the right way," he says.

"When I'm gone, I guess this place will close up too," he says. "You can hardly find places to learn the trade anymore, and most people want to do quick, cheap work and not put the time in to do quality work."

Mike Latimer shrugs at that likely outcome and picks up another shoe and begins fixing the heel. For now, his work, this dying art, survives another day.

(Article by Holly Hollman of the Decatur Daily and photos courtesy of award winning photographer Gary Cosby, Jr, of the Decatur Daily.)

----Penne J. Laubenthal


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