A business with a lot of ‘sole’

HOUGHTON – To get an idea of what Doug Johnson’s accomplished over close to a half-century, just do the math.

Fixing 20 pairs of shoes a day – no, round down to 10 just to be on the safe side. Multiply it by 300 days a year. Then multiply that by 48 – the number of years since he first set up a shoe repair shop in Calumet.

That’s 144,000 pairs of shoes – and untold amounts of soles, thread, polish, laces and dedication.

“If it can be fixed, I fix it,” said Johnson, owner of Johnson Shoe Repair in Houghton.

Strange as it is to say this about someone with a 48-year career, Johnson came to it fairly late. After time as a night shift machine operator in Detroit and time in the Navy and Army, he worked as a miner until he got injured at work. In 1964, he went to Milwaukee to learn the shoe-repair trade. The next year, he moved up to Calumet, where he started a shop on Sixth Street, on the current site of Copper World.

“I wasn’t really in the best of physical health, so I wanted to do something I could set my own pace at,” he said. “I didn’t have any problems, and there were only two old shoe repair shops in the Calumet-Laurium area, so they were out of business a couple years after I went in, because they were ready to retire.”

In 1983, after his late wife, Patricia, got a job at Michigan Technological University. They moved to Dodgeville, and he moved his shop to Lakeshore Drive in Houghton, where it’s stayed.

In addition to shoes, Johnson also fixes zippers, jackets and repairs and makes golf clubs. The main business, shoes, is less busy than it used to be, Johnson said; they’re built now to be replaced, not fixed.

“It isn’t that we can’t fix them, but they’re not as expensive as they were before, so people buy new ones instead of having them repaired,” he said.

He demonstrates the machine he calls “the breadwinner” – a Time-Master finisher. His old one was 15 feet long; at the end of the day, he was beat. The new one is a third of the size.

He flicks a switch and it whirrs to life. He runs the heel of the shoe against a ceaseless blue belt.

“See?” he said. “When this shoe came in, it was pretty well worn out, so I built it up. To make it look presentable, you use this machine, called a finisher. He paid $150 for it, and I repaired it and put better materials on it than they had originally. For $35, he’s got a pair of shoes that’s as good as new and it’s broken in already. There’s no substitute for comfort.”

About 60 percent of the work is by hand. Aside from the finisher, there’s also a trusted Singer machine for the jackets. This time of year, he also fixes anywhere from 150 to 200 zippers.

Ten years ago, Johnson might have said he’d miss the shop. But he’s 87. And he’s also without his wife, who died six months ago.

Does he think about retiring? The answer is an instantaneous “Yes.” If he sells it, he said, he’ll probably spend his time hunting and fishing.

Still, though, “I wouldn’t sell it to just anybody.”

In the meantime, he’s still getting customers. One man comes in and drops off a pair of shoes and buys a pairs of shoelaces.

“Sounds good,” the men says after being rung up. “Do you need my name or anything?”

No,” Johnson said. “I’ll remember you.”