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After 50 years of mending soles, Affton shoe shop closing

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After 50 years of mending soles, Affton shoe shop closing
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“Italians are picky about their shoes,” Giovanni LoCascio said, with room to talk.

After almost 75 years making and repairing footwear, the Sicilian-born St. Louisan has shut down his stitcher, auto-soler and sewing machine.

And come Saturday, John’s Repair Shop in Affton will be no more.

“Sure, I’m going to miss it, but I’m 87,” LoCascio said. “How many years you think I got left?”

After decades of dwindling business, thanks to the modern avalanche of sneakers and rubber soles, LoCascio had no choice but to shutter the shop at 9414 Gravois Road.

Fifty years an Affton cobbler, John's Shoe Repair disappears

Giovanni LoCascio, 87, smooths an extended orthopedic sole he built for a customer at his Gravois Avenue shop, John's Shoe Repair, on Tuesday, June 18, 2019. After 50 years of work, business has faded and LoCascio is shutting his doors. Photo by Robert Cohen, rcohen@post-dispatch.com.

“I used to work 10, 12 hours a day to get all the work done. Now, I can handle it all in two, three hours. The business just isn’t there any more.

“Everyone wears tennis shoes or flip-flops,” he said with a shrug.

Not that LoCascio didn’t try to find someone to take over the operation.

“I wanted to sell the shop, but no one wanted to buy it. I wanted to sell the equipment, but no one wanted to buy that either,” LoCascio said.

Fifty years an Affton cobbler, John's Shoe Repair disappears

Tools and polishes litter the workbench of cobbler Giovanni LoCascio at his Affton shop. Photo by Robert Cohen, rcohen@post-dispatch.com.

Although Sicilian friends Antonino Lombardo and Luigi Palazzola later stopped by and filled the shop with story-swapping that toggled between Italian and English, LoCascio himself is more of a listener than a talker, more comfortable tacking on new heels than chatting about old times.

Born in 1932 in Altavilla Milicia, Sicily, about 10 miles southeast of Palermo, LoCascio began training as a cobbler — “calzolaio” or “ciabittino” in Italian — by working with his uncle at the end of World War II.

To say the least, times were “terrible.”

“There was very little food, and we had to go to the river every day to get our water. I remember bombs being dropped outside our town because there were Germans (soldiers) out there.”

Given the tough times, a cobbler held an important job. “You learned to mend your shoes, take care of them. You couldn’t just go and buy new ones,” he said.

LoCascio left Italy and his uncle’s business in 1959 to join his parents and younger siblings, who had moved several years earlier to Chicago.

“Right away, I got a job at Florsheim’s making shoes. They didn’t have to teach me a thing; I already knew how,” he said.

A move to St. Louis

LoCascio’s quiet demeanor was reinforced by his years spent at Florsheim’s.

“I didn’t speak much English and most of the people who worked around me were from Cuba or Mexico, so they spoke Spanish,” he said. “So there wasn’t much to say.”

Fifty years an Affton cobbler, John's Shoe Repair disappears

Working in his shop on the last day before his shoe repair machines and tools were taken away, Giovanni LoCascio, 87, looks out for the hauling truck on Tuesday, June 18, 2019. LoCascio was only able to sell one Singer sewing machine and the rest was hauled away as junk. After 50 years of work, business faded and LoCascio is shutting his Affton doors. Photo by Robert Cohen, rcohen@post-dispatch.com.

Apparently, he talked some with Frances Fontana, an Italian-Hungarian native of Pinckneyville, Illinois, who had moved to Chicago to work as a secretary at a law firm. They were married in 1964 and have two children.

But after 10 years of steady work, the Florsheim posting took a misstep in 1969 when the company shifted shoe-making operations to India.

“They still make good shoes, but not the same quality like they were,” he said. “A quality dress shoe is all leather; cheaper shoes use synthetic stuff as liners.”

So the couple came to St. Louis, where one of Frances LoCascio’s sisters lived. They bought the Affton shop, which had been open seven years.

“This area was different then, more like a neighborhood with people always walking by,” Frances LoCascio said. “There was a drug store, a cafeteria, a beauty shop and a barber all along this block.”

“Now people just speed by on Gravois,” she said.

One who did stop in was Pepe Finn, who lives in Clayton but drove to Affton to seek out LoCascio’s workmanship for fixing a purse.

Fifty years an Affton cobbler, John's Shoe Repair disappears

Pepe Finn of Clayton says goodbye to Giovanni LoCascio as his final customer on his last day of operation at John's Shoe Repair on Tuesday, June 18, 2019 in Affton. LoCascio will be at his shop for a few more days for customers to pick up their repairs. "He's earned a well deserved retirement," said Finn, looking over her fixed strap. "I hope he enjoys it." Photo by Robert Cohen, rcohen@post-dispatch.com.

“There’s nobody else who knows how to do the things he does,” Finn said, adding that her shoes are not the only item she had trusted to his care.

“He fixes the strap on an alligator handbag that I love, and he’s fixed a wallet of mine — all my old, favorite things,” Finn said.

LoCascio said he also is concerned for people who have special orthopedic needs.

“I’ve done a lot of work over the years for people who need wedges put in or lifts added to their shoes because of foot problems,” he said. “I’ve recommended some places, because those people need that work.”

Grass to cut

The closing of LoCascio’s shop is no isolated event.

The number of repair shops in the U.S. has dropped from roughly 100,000 in 1930 to about 5,500 today, according to the Shoe Service Institute of America.

Jim McFarland, president of the industry-promoting institute, laid much of the blame on his own generation, the baby boomers.

Fifty years an Affton cobbler, John's Shoe Repair disappears

Giovanni LoCascio, 87, gets help from his friend John Laufer, right, as the men wait for men to remove LoCascio's equipment at John's Shoe Repair on Tuesday, June 18, 2019. LoCascio was only able to sell one Singer sewing machine and the rest was hauled away as junk. After 50 years of work, customers faded and LoCascio is shutting his Affton doors. Photo by Robert Cohen, rcohen@post-dispatch.com.

“The generation before us, the Great Depression kids, learned to take care of their shoes. But our generation started buying rubber-soled shoes. And that hurt,” said McFarland, a third-generation cobbler in Lakeland, Florida.

Indeed, industry numbers show that Americans spend more than twice as much on athletic shoes as they do on dress and casual-dress shoes.

Fifty years an Affton cobbler, John's Shoe Repair disappears

Peeling business cards from his wall, Giovanni LoCascio, 87, begins the process of shutting down his John's Shoe Repair on Tuesday, June 18, 2019. After 50 years of work, shoe repair customers have faded and LoCascio is shutting his Affton doors. Photo by Robert Cohen, rcohen@post-dispatch.com.

LoCascio also understands the economics. He noted that the average cost of getting a pair of dress shoes resoled and re-heeled is about $40 to $50.

“So why not throw them away and get a new pair” for less than $100, he said.

Estimates show that only 10% of Americans have their shoes repaired, McFarland said.

Changing career visions also have led to the loss of the trade. “Most of the kids of shop owners all went to college, and they sure don’t want to run a shoe shop,” he said.

But he added that baby boomers’ children may save at least some shoe shops.

“Statistics show that the younger generation, age 25 to 35, seems to be buying good shoes — and taking care of them,” he said.

But if a surge in shoe repair does take hold, it will be too late for LoCascio.

Fifty years an Affton cobbler, John's Shoe Repair disappears

Junk haulers remove a massive machine for sanding and grinding shoe soles as Giovanni LoCascio watches on his final day of business at John's Shoe Repair on Tuesday, June 18, 2019. LoCascio plans to still be in his Affton shop until his customers pick up remaining repairs. Photo by Robert Cohen, rcohen@post-dispatch.com.

Now that LoCascio has given away his heavy equipment and had it moved out, the only work left for him is cleaning out the shop and waiting for customers to pick up finished orders.

As to retirement plans, LoCascio’s don’t seem to include traveling abroad.

“I’ve been back (to Italy) three times, but not any more,” he said. “It’s too expensive to go over there. Everything costs too much.”

Not that he plans to do nothing, as he outlined in his strategy for his future.

“Well, I’ve got to cut the grass,” he said, “and I’ve got to repaint the porch.”

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Joe Holleman is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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