It all started with Dave Russell’s unusual feet. They are a size 5½ in length and a quadruple E in width. For years it was a challenge to find shoes that fit, so after many years, he grew accustomed to gluing, stitching and stretching his own specially ordered shoes.
He became so adept at his craft that a friend who worked in the orthopedic shoe manufacturing business eventually hired Russell as a trainee. It was there that he learned all about the challenges and techniques of putting together fine custom-made shoes.
“While I was there, I worked alongside an Indian chief,” said Russell. “He taught me all about leather. I was a fast learner.”
A native of Massachusetts, Russell had also lived in Maine and Canada before moving to Nevada County. In 1979, he bought an old shoe-repair business on Mill Street in Grass Valley from a fellow by the name of Dan Reichstadt, who had run the business for more than 25 years. Legend has it that Reichstadt’s grandfather had been the shoemaker for Napoleon’s army.
The basement-level location of the 1854 brick building has been a shoe repair business since the 1920s. It was a perfect fit for Russell, who remains the owner of Dave’s Shoe Repair to this day.
Other than the thousands of shoes that have come and gone, not much seems to have changed since Russell took over more than 35 years ago. He still rings customers up on a 1922 cash register and repairs shoes on his 1925 Singer nonmotorized treadle sewing machine. He’s got a 1947 nailer and a 1944 stitcher, which he oils every time he uses it. He’s got vintage shoe stretchers, squeaky antique high-speed sanders, skive tools, lathes — even an 1897 “spot stretcher” for people with enormous bunions. Rows of small tools hang in ancient leather loops nailed to the counter.
Despite today’s throw-away society, Russell’s repair orders are backed up through April with customers’ favorite cowboy boots, dress pumps, espadrille sandals and wing tips — even Russell’s own GI boots left over from the Korean War. His estimate of 300 shoes currently heaped in the shop somehow seems way too low.
“I never advertise, I’m too damned busy,” he said. “I’ve never had an apprentice. It would take at least a year or two to teach someone what I know — and I’m still learning.”
Although Dave’s Shoe Repair is closed on weekends, sometimes Russell will come in to catch up on orders. At places like Safeway or the bank, people constantly ask Russell about their shoes, he said. But he laughs it off and tells them to bring them in. He’ll take a look at them, he says, adding that most of them are “crap these days anyway,” and the people at the factory don’t care if they last.
“Sometimes I stay late. I’ll let people in if they show up at the door, even if I’m closed. I don’t mind,” he said. “When I get tired I just lock the door, grab a box for a pillow and lie down on the floor right here,” he said, pointing to a narrow area near the upside-down steel feet used for tinkering with soles. “But I turn the light off so no one sees me and thinks I’m dead.”
Now 78, Russell says he has no plans to retire.
“I like having something to do,” he said. “I know some of the guys around here who retired. They went home, watched TV and went downhill fast.”
A fan of model railroads, Russell said he still enjoys it when children on the sidewalk stop to watch his model train go around the small track in the window sill.
“It’s a wonder that train is still working, with all the dust in here,” he said, with a laugh. “I guess the most rewarding part of my job is making people comfortable in their shoes. It’s a craft — it feels good to know how to do something well.”
To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email her at Cory@theunion.com or call 530-477-4203.
“I guess the most rewarding part of my job is making people comfortable in their shoes. It’s a craft — it feels good to know how to do something well.”