Local cobbler boasts global clientele
By TONIA NOELL MOLINSKI, News correspondent
See 'Local cobbler boasts global clientele' story in Northshore Weekly
IPSWICH -- Walk into Central Shoe Repair across from the fire station and you feel as if you've entered another era.
You feel that way at least until the phone rings, and you learn someone is calling from Malaysia, Japan, Brazil or maybe Spain, England or Germany.
Why is the world shopping at a small cobbler shop in the center of historic Ipswich? At first glance, the shop appears to be a throwback: Piles of well-worn shoes are crammed into corners waiting their turn to be re-soled or restored. The aroma of leather and polish permeates the air. There is no outward sign the cobbler shop is on the Internet superhighway -- but it is.
The phone rings and a weathered hand uncradles the receiver while the eyes of Ipswich's last cobbler, Costas Tsoutsouras, still thoughtfully explore a damaged clog lying on the bench near ;his tools.
"Yes?" he says, listening.
This time the call is from someone in Florida -- not an Ipswich customer vacationing in the Sunshine State but someone who has never set foot in Massachusetts and simply stumbled on Tsoutsouras' web site: www.centralshoe.com. The conversation goes on ... five minutes, 10 minutes, 15. It is an endless discussion about style, color and size. The woman is trying to locate a clog in pink leather.
This is the secret hidden in this tiny cobbler's shop: Tsoutsouras' is one of the few outlets worldwide that sells top quality clogs on the Internet.
Tsoutsouras answers each question, never seeming to lose his patience as the minutes tick by and the questions keep coming. Finally he offers to send the Florida caller a color sample snipped from a corner of the leather swatch he is holding.
On the sidewalk, above the door hangs a decorative sign in the form of a blue and yellow Swedish flag. It seems to draw passersby like a magnet, says Tsoutsouras, who years ago placed this symbol of a clog company in his window. He could see pedestrians' heads turn to look at it as they passed by -- and got drawn into the store. a cobbler before him, in this very store, which opened in the 1920s.
His father died when Tsoutsouras was a sixth-grader. During those hard years, his mother would take shoes in during the day and Tsoutsouras would come directly to the cobbler shop after school and repair as many as he could before supper.
Tsoutsouras, now 65, has been here ever since, as a local merchant and community leader. He was on the Conservation Commission for 20 years -- in fact he was one of its first members. He and his wife, Bette, have brought up three daughters who all live locally, a lawyer, a teacher and a librarian.
And through it all, there have been shoes, thousands of shoes.
"Sometimes I wonder," he says, shaking his head. "I've been doing this for 50 years. Should anyone be doing the same thing for 50 years?"
One of his daughters was actually instrumental in Tsoutsouras' success, first by urging him to venture into the clog business and then advising him to use the Internet.
"Years ago," explains Tsoutsouras, "my daughter had bought a pair of clogs that were very uncomfortable, and I tried to find her a new pair. So then this guy says to me 'why don't you sell some in your shop?' So I tried it and that was just about the time that clogs started to get real popular again."
The shoe repair business has been slowly declining over the years, says Tsoutsouras, who still has many loyal customers and repairs hundreds of pairs of shoes a year. He recently repaired a clog that got chewed up by a puppy. A new client, Jody Rosenbaum, comes in to pick up her repaired leather sandals and exclaims, "That's gorgeous! Beautiful!" Rosenbaum explains she just moved to Ipswich. "I heard he was great. I dropped these sandals off before the moving van pulled into my driveway," she says.
"We're not perfect," murmurs Tsoutsouras modestly, but other customers disagree. Many bring in shoes that need special orthotic adjustments. One woman has a husband with a shattered knee that needs one shoe adjusted for height.
Another client has a foot with bone problems and Tsoutsouras takes apart the sole to insert a special NASA-type plastic to cushion her foot and ease the pain.
"Every payday I'm in here buying clogs," says Kristin Ryan, director of the Pre-school Patch at the YMCA. "I have a whole house full of them now."
Ryan is in the shop ordering clogs for her two nieces, ages 4 and 5. The girls are dancing up and down with excitement.
The excitement is also sizzling on the Net, where Central Shoe sells up to two dozen pairs of clogs a week.
"I can't believe how many hits my Web site gets every week from all over the world," says Tsoutsouras, who credits his daughter Mia, the librarian who is on the faculty of Salem State College, for designing his Web page as well as helping him and Bette maintain it. Apparently when people have a hard time finding clogs in Europe -- where they live near the manufacturers - and the rest of the world, they turn to the World Wide Web and find Central Shoe.
"With the Internet, people don't care where they order them from. They probably don't even know where Ipswich is," says Tsoutsouras, who adds, "but I'm always surprised that even the people in Europe order clogs from me!"
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