The Art of Preserving the Useful
Over the years, many folks have told Dave Young, owner and cobbler at Graham’s Shoe Service in Waynesboro, a small business self-proclaimed as the most eccentric shop in America, that he is the guardian of a dying art. Surrounded by tools from the 1800s and the timeless air of the particular, Dave disagrees. “I’m here, aren’t I? How could an art be dying while we’re practicing it?”
Graham’s Shoes was the first cobbler to be inducted into the Virginia Folklife Foundation, with both Dave and his daughter joining their Apprenticeship Showcase as Master Cobbler and Apprentice. They have been recognized by the National Endowment for the Arts, and Dave seems to feel that part of his job is finding the magic in the mundane. “They say you can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear,” he says. “But I love doing that! You can, you really can, you just gotta be darn good at what you do.”
An Unlikely Start Meets a History of Apprenticeship
“I never meant to do this,” says Dave of his now 24-year career as a cobbler. He was 38 when he became interested in shoes, following a former career as a tree surgeon. Tired of hearing from his wife and his mother about the dangers of his day job, he saw a help wanted sign hanging at Graham’s Shoe Service. On his way in the door, he removed the sign. “I laid it on the counter, and I said ‘I’m the guy you want.’” The owned asked, “You know how to repair shoes?” Dave apparently did not miss a moment before replying, “I absolutely do not.”
In an industry that has a long history of apprenticeship, Dave learned fast. He worked, he apprenticed, he read many old books, and he also taught himself. Speaking of the many stitches he uses today, he adds “I do not always know if they are historically correct. I know that they work.” Four years after he walked in the front door, Dave bought the business.
Today, he is passionate about apprenticeship and passing on knowledge. He speaks of the generational decline of farmers and fixers. “We still need farmers. We still need things fixed. But there’s no one to fix it, and increasingly we are running out of people to teach people how to fix it.”
Dave has a long-term apprentice, Jerome West. “He’s very good. I don’t really tell him how very good he is.” Together, they fix, polish, shine, rebuild, and resurrect. “If we’re careful and we do a beautiful job, we want to work on a given pair of shoes many times over the years. I meet a good pair of shoes, and I want to meet them again.”
Crafting a Home in Waynesboro
Graham’s Shoe Service has built its business by combining the warm familiarity of the local with the draw of the unique. Uniting century-old tools with the technology of the 21st century allows the store to lure customers from all over the country. Meanwhile, tattered boots shuffle in hikers who have walked from Georgia to Dave’s door. Acclaimed on the Appalachian Trail, Graham’s Shoes Service has always been a friend to the hikers. He knows them by their trail names and keeps a sign-in log that is decades old. He tells them that if he doesn’t receive a postcard from the summit of Mt. Katahdin in Maine, he will assume they did not finish the trail. His walls are littered with photos his admirers have returned.
Asked about what he’s learned from hikers, he remarks that he sees mostly men. “Guys kick rocks,” he says. “When a girl sees a rock, she decides not to kick it. In general, and I believe this, girls are smarter. On the trail, they’ve proved it.”
Indeed, strong women seem to anchor Graham’s Shoe Service, from the poster-size photo of Dave’s daughter in the back of the store, to the wooden wheelchair of his Great Aunt Clara, which graces the shop’s main entrance. She never walked as an adult, but Clara was nonetheless, independent, unmarried, and upwardly mobile at a time when few economic opportunities existed for women, even for the more physically nimble. Her legacy as a businesswomen stands as inspiration for Dave’s entrepreneurship and persistence. While he could never fix a pair of shoes for her to walk in, orthopedic risers and shoe supports for the aging have become a specialty of Graham’s Shoe Service today.
Advice for Fellow Entrepreneurs
Dave’s advice to fellow artists and entrepreneurs is to connect with what he calls your original creativity. He follows his own advice not only as a small business owner, but also as Duffy the Singing Cobbler, where he brings poetry and folk music to his artistic repertoire. Far more interested in creating art that is true to ourselves rather than for its potential popularity, he insists that one not try to write Bob Dylan songs, who, Dave adds, “already wrote those anyway.”
“Real people on real streets want to teach and want to learn. As an artist, I would say you must actually do it. You don’t have to work yourself to death, but be prepared to work many hours – artistry requires that you show up. Don’t worry about the money, or whether anyone else will like it. Money can be a good barometer of freedom or talent or whatever, but it can’t be your main purpose.” Guided by mentors of his own, Dave emphasizes “Your job as a songwriter is not to write a hit, your job is to write songs.”
To learn more about Dave, Graham’s Shoes Service, and Duffy the Singing Cobbler, you can visit him online at facebook.com/grahamsshoeservice. And, always check back often at GrowWaynesboro.com for new profiles of the local entrepreneurs who, like Dave, are building a more beautiful Waynesboro.