Morristown Shoe Repair Shop Bucks Trend of Bygone Businesses
For Labor Day, Patch looks at how jobs have changed during the last century, including one Speedwell Avenue business that has survived and thrived with the times.
This is a story about jobs that, by and large, simply don’t exist in the United States anymore. Or if they do, are holding on by the fiber-optic thread that will soon extinguish the occupation for good.
Some are ancient history, like the iceman who has not cometh since the Eisenhower Administration. And others—including the minimum wage Wal-Mart “greeter” that once welcomed people into the Cedar Knolls store—were here just yesterday.
But, this story has a happy ending, at least for one Morristown shoe repair shop and its many loyal customers.
A LESS DISPOSABLE TIME
At The Sun newspaper of Baltimore—where many wonder if reporters will eventually go the way of the typewriter (and the skilled folks who repaired them)—there used to be an aged, exceedingly polite elevator operator named Barney Barney.
[Yes, his first name and his last name were inexplicably the same.]
Though extraordinary buildings like the Space Needle in Seattle still use an elevator operator, the job largely disappeared in the early 1950s with advancements in lift technology. But The Sun kept Barney on into the mid-1970s because he was considered part of the founding A.S. Abell company family, which owned the paper until 1986.
Corporations still say they treat employees like families, but those types of ties, like the technology that stays relevant for an entire century, is mostly a thing of the past.
The New Orleans folksinger Trey Yip, a disciple of Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, put himself through college one summer about a decade ago by selling encyclopedias door to door in the Dakotas. The filmmaking Maysles brothers—Albert and David—made a documentary in 1969 about door-to-door Bible salesmen.
Strangers don’t sell anything door-to-door anymore. “Slumber parties” thrown by women to sell sex toys to their friends and neighbors are flourishing, but the doorbell ringing Avon Lady has gone the way of the milkman, who now services less than half of one percent of American homes.
The most recent news of jobs lost because the world doesn’t work the way it used to arrived just before Labor Day and concerned the products used to make encyclopedias: ink and paper.
According to Business Week, Lexmark International laid-off 1,700 workers around the globe in late August after deciding to get rid of its inkjet printer division.
The reason is the same one wreaking havoc with the United States Postal Service. Each day, by leaps and bounds, paper is being made obsolete by increased dependence on cyberspace. From 2006 to 2009, according to reports, North American consumption of paper and cardboard declined 24 percent.
Add the paperboy to the list. As long ago as two decades ago, adults with minivans and station wagons began pushing aside the kid who threw papers on your doorstep out of a canvas satchel. As circulation and home subscriptions continue to plummet, there are fewer people of any age tossing the morning paper (evening papers are dead) into the bushes.
THE NOISE WE LOST
And finally, a word about how work used to sound.
The American workplace once made a lot of noise. The racket, whether in the bygone shipyard or the typing pool, was constant and as comforting as the jingle bell of a cash register: It meant production.
If you lived near the broom factory, as David H. Klein did in a 1950s childhood in southwest Baltimore, the making of a wire-wound corn broom sounded something like Sly and the Family Stone.
BOOM CHAKA CHAKA! BOOM CHAKA CHAKA! BOOM CHAKA CHAKA!
It was the sound of a machine slapping wooden sticks into place before spinning wire around the broom head to fasten the straw in place. And it permeated cities like Baltimore and Cleveland and St. Louis and Milwaukee and anywhere else hardware stores sold essentials made in their own backyard.
“Everybody was working, everybody had a job,” said Klein, raised by a Lithuanian grandmother who labored in a downtown clothes factory in a city that once made umbrellas, straw hats, raincoats, Chevrolets and ships. “You’d go home after work, eat, go to bed and get up and do it again.”
There are still a few American factories making brooms. The short list includes the Libman Company of Arcola, Illinois where the works are run by the great-grandchildren of founder William Libman, who started making brooms in 1896.
But none are so close to the homes of their workers that breadwinners can fall asleep to a boom-chaka-chaka lullaby that lets them know they’ll have a job in the morning.
THE COBBLER IS DEAD ... BUT, NOT IN MORRISTOWN
No, we're not talking about the sweet stuff made of apples and peaches and latticed with fresh dough. This is about the guy who runs the shoe repair shop and makes the old new again.
Cobblers have disappeared as shoes have become disposable. You can’t fix a pair of athletic shoes or anything else in which the sole and the heel is a single piece of rubber. You can wipe off a pair of gym shoes with Formula 409, as some enterprising youngsters do on city streets for a buck, but they won’t take a shine.
Yep, the Cobbler is dead ... but not in Morristown.
Rago Brothers, on Speedwell Avenue, has been in constant operation since 1911, when brothers Louis and Thomas Rago started their business. Even when their old building burned down in 2004, current owner Tom Rago noted, "we never stopped working a day."
Tom, the third generation to operate the store alongside his brother Tony, credits his company's ability to think outside the box for his business's longevity in an industry that has pretty much disappeared.
Every morning, the store gets about 200 boxes from high-end companies like Kate Spade and Burberry, which the staff of about 35 immediately dives into on a seemingly-neverending basis.
"We have constantly worked to improve the business," Tom Rago said. "Now, we're not just shoes, we're also leather jackets, handbag repairs. We've embraced that."
But, even though Rago Brothers does repairs nationwide, their Morristown store still is a reminder of what, for many, is a bygone era featuring their friendly-neighborhood shoe repair shop.
"I wouldn't say 'friendly,'" Tom Rago laughed. "How about 'cranky?'"