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He’s like an old shoe. A little worn-in, but reliable, nonetheless.
Everyday his attire is the same — a black T-shirt, some variation of slacks and tennis shoes.
“My grandkids, when they were small, they thought this was my skin” said Silvio Palomba about his t-shirt. His blue eyes shine behind wire frame glasses. His salt-and-pepper mustache turns up in a smile as he laughs about his appearance. He throws his hands in the air in a way that says “eh, whatever.”
He could use a little polish. But, he saves it for the shoes.
Bells chime and a customer walks through the door of Silvio’s Shoe Repair on Ninth Street in Naples. It’s a sound Silvio has heard six-days-a-week since he opened the store 1980.
“I was a plumber in Italy,” Silvio, 62, said in an Italian accent he has retained despite living in the states more than 40 years. “So when I come to this country, my father-in-law (a cobbler in Boston) made the offer, ‘you come work for me I pay you 60 bucks a week.’ ”
He got a $20 raise every time he and his wife had a child. They had three.
Now, his grandson T.J. Palomba, 15, walks around his grandfather’s store to help every Saturday.
“He’s gonna be the next cobbler in town,” said Silvio, hoping to spark some interest in T.J. about the family business. But, he knows right now T.J. is probably more interested in video games.
”I’ve been coming here forever,” said T.J. “I grew up in the store. I know how all the bags and boxes and shoes are in order.”
An untrained eye may disagree that anything in Silvio’s storefront is in “order.” In fact, it looks a bit like chaos. Rows of boxes on top of boxes. Shoes stacked with yellow tags waiting to be returned to their owners.
Customers don’t seem to mind the lived-in feel of the store. A steady stream come in and out on a recent Saturday to drop off and retrieve shoes. Silvio prides himself on being able to alter shoes for a custom fit.
“He is amazing,” said Debra Newman who works at Marissa Collections on Third Street South in Naples. “If he can’t fix it, it can’t be done.”
But, shoes aren’t his sole business anymore.
Purses, belts, luggage — Silvio repairs it all. Over the years, he has had to take on these extra items to secure business.
Forty years ago he saw for the first time a shoe made with a plastic sole instead of leather. He and his father-in-law didn’t know at the time what they were dealing with. “We took them in, thinking it was like rubber and the glue wouldn’t stick on them.”
Today, he says, you can buy a shoe for less than you can repair it. “That is what ruined this industry,” Silvio said. “But, you can’t blame anybody, it’s progress.”