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Shoe Repair is Hillsdale’s Oldest Business

[April 25, 2024]

Hillsdale Shoe Repair opened 70 years ago in 1954, making it the neighborhood’s oldest business still in operation today. Tony Scuito, aka “Mr. Hillsdale” according to his obituary in 2009, was the first cobbler in residence.  A well-liked business owner and civic booster, he’s credited with starting the Hillsdale Pancake Breakfast, still going strong almost 50 years later. 

Scuito’s 29-year tenure was surpassed more than a decade ago by his successor, Chris Park, a Korean immigrant who arrived here at age 27. A single mother with limited English, Chris worked hard to learn the trade and run the business that would allow her to support her family, and that would turn into a labor of love.

A dog with its front paws on a counter with a shoe
Nemo helping a customer.

Nemo, Chris’s faithful canine companion, kept her company in the shop and helped welcome customers for 12 years until his death this past January. Chris was devastated by his loss, but months later she continues to feel the loving support of longtime customers who, missing Nemo almost as much as she does, still bring flowers and share their sadness with her.

At 67 and after 40 years of repairing shoes and nurturing relationships with her customers, this outpouring of support is one reason she plans to keep working as long as possible.

In Korea, Chris was married at 19, becoming a mother for the first time at 21. When her parents and two siblings emigrated to the U.S. in the early 1950s, the rules didn’t allow her to come with them because she was married. 

A few years later her father became an American citizen and made a plan for Chris and her young household to join the rest of the family in Oregon. He had learned that Tony Scuito was looking to sell his shoe repair business and decided that, rather than follow the path of many other Korean immigrants into the grocery or dry cleaning business, shoe repair was the way to go for the Parks. He struck up a friendship with Tony as well as a deal to buy the business.

Forty years ago when Chris took over there were plenty of cobblers. Some owned their own shops and did all their own repairs. Others hired a “shoe man,” usually young men skilled in the craft, to do all or some of the repair work for them. Chris’s father had been a doctor in the South Korean army, not a cobbler, and intended to run the shop with the help of artisans trained in the trade.

The plan changed suddenly when, just as Chris was filing her application to come to the U.S., her father died unexpectedly. 

Chris bought the business from her mother, who inherited it when her husband died. She came on her own with her two children, ages 2 and 6, to run the shoe repair shop that her father had purchased but never got to work in. 

Tony Scuito, who had liked her father, was kind and supportive and worked with Chris for several months, teaching her the basics of running the business. “Tony was a really nice guy. I wanted to be like Tony, everybody loved Tony.” Chris remembers him saying that his (now her) shop was the oldest shoe repair shop in Portland still operating in its original location. He told her, “Chris, you can be proud of this shop.” 

While learning the business, she worked on her English-language skills. “I had to learn English here in the shop,” she says. “I learned by speaking with customers.” On top of that, customers assumed that Chris was hired simply to look after the counter, or that she was the wife of the proprietor. Shy and still working on her English, she humored them. In fact, she says, it took decades for customers to accept her not only as the owner, but as the craftsperson with the skills to do their repairs.

Eventually, it was time for Chris to manage the shop on her own, relying on the labor of hired cobblers to do the actual repair work. Then another thing happened to change the plan.

The “shoe men” weren’t reliable— they didn’t stick around long and often had problems with drugs or alcohol. Even worse, they didn’t take pride in their craft and did poor work, sometimes damaging shoes they were supposed to repair. After about five years of relying on hired help, she decided she would have to learn to be a cobbler herself. 

In Korea, Chris had trained as a fine artist, working in oil paints and wood carving. The artistic side of repair work appealed to her, she knew how to sew and liked working with her hands. Practicing when business was quiet and on evenings and weekends, she became not just a cobbler, but by her reckoning the first woman cobbler in town, as well as the first woman cobbler to own her own shop. And today, she just may be the cobbler with the oldest continuously operating shop in town.

“I tried to learn quickly and I wanted to be the best. I worked really hard,” she says.

Longtime customer Gloria Hammer says that for 30 years, through many life events and career changes, from 3-inch heels to Birkenstocks, Chris has excelled at making her shoes comfortable. She describes her as an artist, trailblazer, and “an inspiring woman who has been ahead of her time and doesn’t even realize it.”

Shoes have changed over the past 40 years, as has the shoe repair business. Park noticed that once Nike became popular, sneakers replaced more dressy looks; “No one dressed up anymore,” she says now, adding that traditional craft techniques and high-quality materials have been replaced by rubber soles and glue. Thanks to contracts with local retailers such as Marios, she still gets to work on well-crafted high-end shoes.

Even though days of sewn welts and leather soles are mostly gone, Chris provides a wealth of repair services that are still in demand. A few years ago, as rock climbing became a popular sport in Oregon, she moved into a new niche repairing climbing shoes. As far as she knows, she is the only cobbler in town who can fix them in her own shop. Everyone else, she says, sends them out of town to be repaired.

Not limited to shoe repair, her skills extend to much more: handbags, belts, dye to change color or restore the original color of shoes and other leather goods, and custom orthopedic adjustments are just a few of the tasks she is happy to take on. “I do everything,” she says.

Years ago, Tony Scuito urged her to be proud of the work, and of the shop. She is certainly that, but today she also takes pride in all that she has accomplished personally: learning English, learning her trade while working full time and raising two children on her own, and coming into her own as a confident artisan and business owner.

The long-term future of the shop is uncertain. Shoe repair shops are closing everywhere as manufacturing and fashions evolve. No one is waiting in the wings to take over the shop once Chris is gone—while she has taken on apprentices over the years, none have been motivated to stick with the business.

Chris is certain of her future, however, and it doesn't involve retirement. Her biggest challenges are in the past, and these days she can simply enjoy the work she loves and relish the personal interactions that come with it.

It took years, she says, for customers to accept her as the “shoe man,” but now the relationships she has built are what keep her in the business.

—Valeurie Friedman


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