Collinsville cobbler: Trust your shoes to Louie

News-DemocratSeptember 1, 2013 

Melody Kerbs rushed to the counter of London Shoe Shop in Collinsville 10 minutes before closing.

She was having a shoe crisis: The heel caps had come off her favorite tan pumps.

"They're my go-to shoes," said Melody, a court stenographer from Edwardsville. "They go with everything. They fit me good, and they're comfortable. Good, comfy shoes are hard to find."

Melody had called earlier and talked to repairman Louie Halwachs. The towering figure emerged from his workshop in an apron, tennis shoes and shorts that showed his prosthetic leg.

Louie had agreed to do a rush job on Melody's heel caps. Ten minutes later, she was walking out the door with a new spring in her step.

"Thank you so much!" she beamed.

For people who care about shoes, Louie, 57, of Maryville, is a good guy to know.

He owns Louie's Shoe Repair and Birkenstocks, which shares space with London Shoe at 125 W. Main.

Louie has spent 36 years stretching, gluing and polishing shoes, replacing soles and heel plates and sewing torn leather on purses and other bags.

"My specialty is orthopedic work," he said. "I do a lot of build-ups for people who have leg-length discrepancies. That's all done through prescriptions. I'm like a pharmacist, except for shoes."

Louie has been assisted by right-hand man John Stahura for 20 years.

Wife Sherry Halwachs also works in the shop part time, waiting on customers when Louie is gone for "therapy" (fishing) one day a week.

"We're just down-to-earth people," Sherry said. "We try to be friendly to everyone."

Louie lost his leg at 13. He was playing on railroad tracks in East St. Louis and got run over by a train.

Some would see the accident as misfortune, but Louie notes it paved the way for his career and marriage. He stopped by the shoe shop in 1977 to have a pair of dingo boots adapted to his legs.

The business was owned by Frenchy Allard, his future brother-in-law and a fellow fisherman who offered to teach him the trade.

Frenchy's father had started the London Shoe chain in East St. Louis. Nephew Mark Allard still owns the Collinsville location.

"I quit a job (as a machinist) making $9.82 an hour to make $3 an hour," Louie said. "My mom and dad thought I was crazy, but they said, 'Do what you want to do.'"

Louie liked the idea of being a craftsman instead of a factory worker.

Today, the repair shop always is swamped with business. Brown, black, navy, tan and cordovan shoes are stacked everywhere.

"The trade is coming back," Louie said. "In 1977, when I started, there were over 50,000 shoe-repair shops in the United States. In 2010, there were 5,700. In 2012, there were almost 9,800."

Louie gives partial credit to immigration, which has brought craftsman and customers from societies that fix products instead of throwing them away.

He has developed a reputation for quality work. Customers come from Marion, Murphysboro and other Southern Illinois towns.

"We get stuff in the mail all the time," Louie said. "We got two boxes from St. Louis today. People send stuff from California, New York, Florida, Chicago ..."

The shop looks much like it did in the early days with a stitcher from the 1940s and a decades-old finisher and heel nailer.

But shoe materials have changed. Parts formerly made of leather now contain synthetics, leather dust, even cardboard.

"It used to be when you bought shoes, you'd get an extra set (of heel caps)," Melody said. "But they don't do that anymore."

Repair prices also have gone up, from $34.50 to $55 for half soles and $3 to $7.50 for stretching.

Some customers bring in shoes just for a polish and shine, which costs $5.

"That's mostly professional people," Louie said. "Doctors, lawyers, judges. But I can't tell you how many times I've shined shoes for someone on their way to an interview."

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