Meet your merchant: Frank Pfaffinger celebrates his 30th year at Nevada City Shoe Repair
Nevada City Shoe Repair
117 Argall Way, Nevada City
Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Friday
Available some Mondays, call ahead
Back in the 80s, Frank Pfaffinger was eager to get his family out of the ever-growing congestion and chaos of the Bay Area. Two days after he was fully vested at his job at UPS, he quit.
It only took one weekend getaway in Nevada City to convince Pfaffinger that Nevada County would offer a much improved quality of life. It reminded him of a simpler time, and he and his wife loved the idea of his three children growing up hunting and fishing.
“When we moved here I had no job, no place to stay and knew no one,” said Pfaffinger, with a chuckle. “But we knew it was the right move.”
It was the mid-80s and literally hundreds of contractors were coming in and out of Lake Wildwood daily, building spec homes. Pfaffinger was able to rent there and pick up the odd construction job, as his longtime hobby was furniture making.
Although he knew construction would eventually take its toll physically, there was one more project he wanted to take on — buying land and building his family home. Once that was finally completed in 1986, he was ready to pursue a different line of work.
A friend told him about a Nevada City shoe repair shop that was up for sale. The idea intrigued Pfaffinger, who had exceptional hand-eye coordination and knew his skills as a furniture maker would serve him when it came to shoe repair.
“Back in the day I remember seeing my grandfather fix his own shoes,” he said. “I walked in to the shop, checked it out, walked out, and said, ‘Yeah, I’ll buy it.’”
This May, Pfaffinger marked his 30th year in business, having owned Nevada City Shoe Repair on Argall Way since 1987. The profession turned out to be a perfect match for him, as it offers a combination of creativity, design and the daily challenge of perfecting his craft. He also enjoys the solitude of the one-man shop, which he says suits his personality.
His unassuming shop is filled with tried-and-true machinery, such as a 1911 finisher, which grinds, cuts and polishes; a 1947 sewing machine for soles; and a 1950s cutter and heel wheel. Unlike many of today’s products, Pfaffinger’s philosophy is to make things that will last, such as the leather apron he made 30 years ago and still wears.
But Pfaffinger’s love of working with leather often goes unappreciated, as more shoes are made cheaply from man-made materials, he said. Too often the cost of a shoe from the likes of Payless ShoeSource is less than the cost of a repair.
“There are at least 70 to 80 types of faux leather materials out there, but leather is still the best for the foot,” he said. “We’re not made to walk around in plastic bags. We have become a disposable nation — it doesn’t have to be that way. Ask me before you throw away that favorite pair of shoes just because of the stitching, worn heel, broken zipper or Velcro that doesn’t work. I’ll give you an honest opinion.”
Pfaffinger also understands the emotional attachment some of his customers have to certain shoes. Last week he modified a customer’s beloved pair of Mexican huarache sandals by reconfiguring the straps and turning them into slip-ons.
But Pfaffinger’s skill and machinery go beyond shoes — many of his longtime customers come to him for purses, straps, handles, holsters — even the occasional saddle. He also regularly repairs and customizes tool belts, logging chaps and contractors’ aprons.
Repairs are usually done within two to three days with rare exceptions, he said, such as the time he worked for three weeks straight during the 49er Fire in 1988. With hundreds of firefighters assigned to the 33,000-acre blaze, it was Pfaffinger’s job to repair their boots as quickly as possible.
“I worked for weeks through the night fixing dozens and dozens of boots that needed to be fixed by the next morning,” he said. “I feel proud of the fact that I was able to do that.”
Sadly, Pfaffinger sees shoe repair as a dying art. Over the years he’s offered to take on apprentices, but has seen little interest. This seems to be symbolic of a throw-away society that has little regard for the accomplished crafts people of the past, he said.
“There’s real sense of satisfaction when people appreciate the work that went into a repair,” he added. “The best part is when people say, ‘I didn’t think it could ever look that good again — it looks new.’”
To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email her at Cory@theunion.com.
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