It was an American story.
A recent immigrant, a family man, opened up a little shop in a quaint suburban town where he could practice a simple craft. He worked tirelessly, and his business thrived. He never thought twice about working 16-hour days, seven days a week and never taking a vacation, much less sitting down to rest his throbbing back or massage his cracked and blistered hands. He had children, and a wife; there were orders to fill, customers to consult with and bills to pay.
But Donato Vaccaro didn’t mind, his grandson, Luke Vaccaro, said. Donato Vaccaro opened Scarsdale Shoe Repair in April of 1929, about six months before the stock market crashed and ushered in one of the most bitter economic periods in our country’s history – not exactly an auspicious time to start a business.
Donato Vaccaro didn’t have time to fret over the Wall Street Journal’s latest round of dire predictions, though. He was too busy leaning over a sewing machine, stitching cracked shoes together for customers who didn’t want to run out and buy a new pair of shoes the second their current pair showed a touch of wear.
“What he built for our family was priceless,” Luke Vaccaro says. “Not in terms of money, but in terms of the opportunities he opened up for all of us.”
Sadly, Donato Vaccaro died young, and Luke’s father, as the eldest son (also named Luke), took over in 1950. He followed in his father’s footsteps, building a sprawling family nest feathered with filed soles, dyed leather and odds and ends the shop took in, like jammed zippers and busted luggage.
“All of my brothers and sisters worked behind the counter at one point,” Luke Vaccaro said. “We learned the craft, which takes years to really learn well. But when my father passed away at age 40 in 1970, I left college and took over the shop. I was the eldest of 13, and it was my responsibility to help my brothers and sisters and mother. But everyone pitched in, it wasn’t just on me. My sister Nicki and my brother Justin have worked by my side every day for about 30 years.”
At Luke Vaccaro’s urging, his other siblings went onto college and finished their education. “Education, education, education,” he said. “That’s what I wanted my brothers and sisters, and my own children, to go after. And they did. They are lawyers, consultants, and they also work in medicine and the business world. And it’s because of the opportunities that this shop, and the wonderful customers we met here, that they were able to do these things.”
Three generations later, the American story has become an American tragedy.
Vaccaro Shoe Repair is closing — a victim of a changing way of life and the economy, and an all-too common tale in this chapter of our country’s history.
“The industry has changed,” Luke Vaccaro said. “Scarsdale has changed. I read a survey recently that showed that only 7 percent of Americans get their shoes repaired now. It’s because people don’t need as many dress shoes, but it’s also a cultural thing. Twenty years ago, people got things like washing machines and shoes fixed when they broke. Now they just buy new ones.”
In addition to changing consumer demand, there aren’t the craftsmen who take pride in their work like there used to be for Luke Vaccaro to depend on.
“People think cobbling and repairing shoes is easy,” Luke Vaccaro said. “But it’s a serious skill. You have to have big hands, patience, attention to detail, strength, pride in your work and good hand-eye coordination. It can take years to train a good shoe repairman and I’ve had several walk out after just a week on the job when they realize how tough it is. It’s a dying trade. Literally – most of my guys have worked into their 70s and 80s, and none of the young guys out there are learning the trade in the same way.”
Luke Vaccaro says he wouldn’t have been able to hold on for the last 10 years if his landlord (who happens to also be the grandson of the landlord who leased the building to his grandfather) hadn’t been willing to “work with” their budget constraints, and if the people of Scarsdale hadn’t been so supportive.
“Truly, the customers have been extraordinary,” he said. “Out of the kindness of their hearts and getting to know my family over the years, they have given members of my family opportunities that we never would have had otherwise, and I can’t thank them enough.”
Luke Vaccaro is sad to see the shop closing, but says he feels like it’s time. Customers used to line up to get their shoes fixed at 7 a.m., and the Vaccaros were able to supplement their income by selling pet food and doing repairs for many of the shoe stores and even some department stores in Scarsdale and White Plains. Those days, however, are gone.
“About 15 years ago we stopped selling pet food when Petco and all of the other big box pet stores moved into town,” Luke Vaccaro recalled. “That hurt our bottom line. But what really killed us was when the shoe stores stopped having us fix their shoes. And the fact is, the world has moved on. People just don’t want to have shoes fixed anymore.”
The world may be moving on, but Scarsdale’s spirit will change when Vaccaro’s moves out and its example of hard work, the American dream realized and a true family business vanishes forever.
Vaccaro Shoe Repair will take its last orders in mid-August. The store is located at 11 Boniface Circle, and can be reached at 914-723-1308. Business hours are Tuesday-Saturday, 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.