Metro January 3, 2017

Stitch, Shine and Polish

Preserving a lost art through generations of apprenticeship

The art of making and repairing shoes has been the province of the Riebe family since the end of the Civil War. At that time, James Riebe, who emigrated from Germany in 1853 at the age of 9, began his apprenticeship in boot making. Little did he know that he was establishing a family tradition that would span six generations and a business that would become a beloved fixture in Boise.

Founder James Riebe and his family landed in Boise in 1906. Originally they planned to settle in Nampa, but the only location they could find for a shoe shop was in an alley and deemed “unsuitable.” According to James’ great-grandson, Jim Riebe, pushing 80, with a gleam in his eye, “The family piled onto the Interurban (the trolley that ran the length of the Treasure Valley at the turn of the 20th century), looked around Boise and decided ‘This is the place!’”

James and his son Edward established the Modern Shoe Shop on Main Street in a building supposedly so narrow that a man could stretch his arms and touch both walls.

In the early 1920s, after a shortlived stint as a farmer, Edward purchased a stitching machine and set up shop in Hyde Park. The shop had (and still has) a reputation for high-quality work. During the Depression, Edward decided to specialize in making handmade logger boots in hopes of bringing in more business, a skill passed down to the current generation. He crafted about 100 pairs of boots each year. Edward also packaged and sold boot grease from a formula created by his father, James. One satisfied customer, a logger, said he “…tramped through snow for eight days before (my) feet felt damp.”

Edward’s son David began working in the shop in 1923, during a school vacation, hoping to save enough money to go to college. He never left the business.

David’s son, Jim, began working at age 12 every day after school, trimming leather and polishing shoes. In turn, Jim’s son Ed learned to break down shoes by tearing off the old soles and heels. He now runs Riebe’s Hyde Park Shoe Repair on North 13th Street.

To walk into the Hyde Park store is like walking into a kind of time warp. There is a fine layer of dust over every surface as if nothing has been moved in 50 years, and the aroma of leather and glue pervades the air. There are shoes everywhere—spilling from the shelves, piled on the floor—old tools and lasts (wooden forms for making shoes) from the days when people ordered handmade shoes hang on the wall above the workbench. Crammed next to them are machines from another era: an insole stitcher operated with a foot pedal, a left-handed Singer sewing machine, a finisher for sanding heels and buffing leather and a power press that attaches soles to shoes by slamming down a ton and a quarter of pressure.

For many years, Ed’s dog, Pepper, a German shorthaired pointer, could be found snoozing in a dilapidated chair by the front window. (“His job was to keep the chair from getting away,” quipped Jim.) Jim still likes to stop in on an occasional Friday. “I’m supposed to be retired but I come in here to foul things up, watch the good-lookin’ ladies and see my friends,” he said.

Ed’s cousin, Bob, began working in the family business in 1981. He bought the repair portion of Nick’s Shoes on Main Street and was joined by his brother Karl and niece Amanda. Bob moved to his present location in the historic Gem Noble Building during its renovation in 2007. Bob cut on his saw the black walnut paneling that adorns Robert Riebe’s Shoe Repair.

It was here, with its antique furnishings, gleaming floors and shoeshine stand, that Bob met his wife, Jennifer. “My mom had just moved to Idaho from Wisconsin,” said their son, Paul, who also works in the shop. “She came into the store and my dad talked to her just like he talks to everybody. Well, maybe he flirted a little. He did some work for free for her and she brought him some veggies that she’d grown and canned, and that kinda did it for him. They’ve been married for over 20 years.”

Paul, an articulate 18-year-old, is the sixth-generation Riebe to work in the family business and may well be the last. “I started working for pay at age 8, picking stitches out of shoes,” he said, “but shoe repair is not academic, and I am. I want to go to college and study chemical engineering.”

He says the industry has shifted: trade is shrinking, the same materials and machines aren’t available anymore and, more important, most modern mass-produced shoes—even the soles and heels—are not designed to be fixed.

“There’s still customer demand,” said Paul. “But either the shoes aren’t fixable or it’s not worth the time it would take. We’d have to charge too much. We have all the stuff to make shoes, but there’s no money in it because it takes so much time and material.”

Just 20 years ago, there were 15 family-run shoe repair shops in Boise. Today, the Riebes’ downtown and North End shops are the last ones to practice what may soon be a lost art.

This article appears in the Winter 2016 Issue of Territory Magazine.