Fred Ruvolo, owner of Village Cobbler Shoppe in Riverhead, is...

Fred Ruvolo, owner of Village Cobbler Shoppe in Riverhead, is retiring this month.  Credit: Dawn McCormick

Fred Ruvolo is hanging up his hammer.

I don't know Fred personally, but in some ways I know him well. And his retirement makes me sad. Not for him, but for the rest of us.

Fred is a cobbler who works in Riverhead, and after 53 years on the job he's putting down his awl and calling it quits.

The grief wells because I've known other Freds in other communities in other times. In my home area, it was Gaspare Mannina, another cobbler who ran his store in Babylon Village, also for 53 years, until his death in 2016.

Folks like Ruvolo and Mannina are craftsmen, not so much creators as re-creators. We brought Mannina broken heels, worn-out soles, ripped uppers of boots, and he gave them back as good as new, at a price that always seemed to be $9. Cost aside, I assume customers' experiences with Ruvolo have been much the same. 

There is a lot to lament here.

Begin with the withering of a noble and needed occupation. Once upon a time, every community seemed to have a cobbler. Now, only the lucky ones do. Back in the 1930s, there were more than 100,000 shoe repair shops in America, according to the Shoe Service Institute of America. There are around 5,000 today, at best, for a nation whose population has nearly tripled.

What's a person with a bad shoe to do?

Throw it away, of course — the next reason for lamentation. It's no news flash that ours is a throwaway culture. We don't repair, we reject. We don't get something fixed, we get rid of it. In the process, we add to our mountains of trash, strain our landfills, and voraciously devour our resources.

The U.S. produces 268 million tons of waste every year. It's estimated the average American tosses out 4.9 pounds of trash every day. Federal agencies say the annual refuse includes more than 300 million pairs of shoes, more than 11 million tons of textiles (think: clothing), and more than 2 million small appliances.

Our collective attitude is part of the problem. We're conditioned to expect things to break, and more quickly than they used to. So when they do, we shrug, kiss them goodbye, and order something new.

And if we do want to fix something, well, every community once had places like Fred's and Gaspare's where you could bring things to get fixed. Many immigrant communities (Gaspare emigrated from Sicily) still do. A frayed wire. A crack or chip. A busted motor. A shoe sole with a hole. Sometimes, for some things, the fixer would come to you.

Nowadays, we're told it's too expensive to get something fixed. It would be cheaper, we're told, to buy something new. Which usually is true only if you have to get something repaired two or three times.

And not everything we throw out is broken. Sometimes it's just old, so strong is the pull of the new.

Breaking this cycle of premature obsolescence is not easy. It is by now so deeply ingrained. But it has been encouraging to see the rise of thriving digital communities where people post items they're tossing for others who might need them. Second and third and fourth lives are important for our goods — and for our own psyches. Learning that we can reuse things is powerfully liberating.

I don't know whether a change in attitude would help us hang on to the likes of Fred and Gaspare in our lives, whether a resurgence of our willingness to get stuff fixed would give rise to a new generation of magic makers. That urge to restore, after all, is in some of our DNA when it comes to houses and cars, for example.

But if it is too late to re-create the demand that would bring back the cobblers and their like, that would be a loss — for their professions, for our communities, and for humanity's future.

Columnist Michael Dobie's opinions are his own.

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