Old, new Hot Springs businesses keep boots walking

By Wayne Bryan Published March 23, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.
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PHOTO BY: Rusty Hubbard

Above: David Garner of Johns Shoe Hospital in Hot Springs tacks a heel onto a boot in the shoe shop where he said his peak season coincides with the horse racing season at Oaklawn Park. Below: Garner, who has been in the business of repairing shoes and boots in Hot Springs since 1955, uses one of the tools of his trade to work on a boot heel.

What Thanksgiving until Christmas is to most retailers, the Oaklawn Park racing season is to David Garner at Johns Shoe Hospital in Hot Springs.

Garner said the men and women who work around the horses at the track have been coming to him for years to get their cowboy and riding boots repaired.

“It’s a regular part of my business,” Garner said while trimming a new heel he had just placed on a pair of well-worn boots. “People like to get their boots fixed up when they’re here in Hot Springs.”

Boots are also the mainstay for a new business on the other side of Hot Springs. Bill Harmon, the owner of Broken Boot & Shoe Repair in the 900 block of Airport Road, said he gets boots from all over the region.

“I’m getting customers from all over — from Benton and even Little Rock, and I’m getting several customers from Arkadelphia and from Conway.

Garner, who has been working in shoe and boot repair since 1955 in Hot Springs, said some of the boots he sees cost more than $1,000, and while they get some rough treatment, their owners certainly don’t want to part with them.

“The old cowboys kick them around, and they are always scuffing up the toes,” he said. “I have to build them up some. I am working on a lot of boots right now.”

A quick look around Garner’s shop in the 800 block of Central Avenue revealed more than 30 pairs of boots sitting around to be repaired or waiting to be picked up by their owners.

The soles of the shoes are often replaced, Garner said. That can get tricky, he said, by the time soles have been replaced several times.

“The best way to repair them is to glue the soles on and then stitch the shoe to the sole,” the veteran leather craftsman said, “but you have to have the leather rim to do that, and some shoes just don’t have enough anymore.”

Actually, that is one of the reasons Garner said he does more boots than any other kind of shoe because some newer shoes are not made with enough leather to sew another sole into place.

Harmon also said boots are purchased to last decades, or even a lifetime, while other shoes come and go in a few years.

Western boots have staying power, and people who work or ride in them have made them comfortable over time,” he said. “You keep those repaired and around for a long time.”

“Shoes aren’t what they used to be,” Garner said. “Most people

don’t even polish them before they are torn or worn, and rather than getting them fixed, they just get another pair.”

He said the high cost of well-made shoes causes show owners to invest in repairs, but a majority of shoes sold today are not built to last, or to be repaired.

That is one reason there are so few shoe-repair businesses in the Tri-Lakes Edition coverage area. Representatives of the chambers of commerce in Arkadelphia and Benton said they knew of no shoe-repair shops in their cities. A Malvern/Hot Spring County Chamber of Commerce representative reported knowing of only one in Malvern — Stockton Shoe Boot and Saddle on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

Garner said he was 15 years old when he learned to repair shoes. He learned in the same shop he works in now.

“It was owned by the Walknowitz family, and the shop opened in 1908,” he said. “The son of the original owner taught me, and I taught my son.”

Garner said his son left the work recently, so Garner works alone in the shop, which was designed to be the workplace of many cobblers.

“You can see from the equipment here that it was meant for several people to be working at the same time,” he said, pointing to a drive rod more than 12 feet long to which brushes and buffers are attached. “I have bought some new equipment, but so much of the old stuff still works, and I’m familiar with it.”

On Airport Road, Harmon said he has purchased some shoe-repair equipment because he had been out of the business for a long time. He, like Garner, learned to repair and even make shoes as a youth.

“I learned when I lived in Boys Town, Father Flanagan’s Boys’ Home in Omaha,”

Harmon said. “It’s a long story; just say my father died when I was 10, and I went to Boys Town when I was 12 and took courses in high school to learn the craft.”

Harmon said he remained in the business until he took a job teaching shoe repair and shoemaking to inmates of a prison in California. Then he was asked to work for the prison, and he became first an industrial service instructor for the state correctional department, then was a corrections officer at two of the state’s maximum-security prisons.

He retired from law enforcement while living in Oklahoma and, like many new residents, traveled through Hot Springs on a vacation when he and his wife decided they liked what they saw and wanted to move to the area.

“I opened the shop to have something to do and to supplement my retirement,” Harmon said. “I’ve been open seven months, and business is fair. I am holding my own.”

Harmon said local shoe stores have been sending him business, and Garner hands out cards for the Broken Boot if someone asks about other shops.

“Things slow down after the racing season,” Garner said, “but I’ve already had a man come in asking me to repair his sandals, and that [type of work] will carry the business along into the summer.”

Both of the shoe-repair specialists said the work is rewarding, not so much because of the money, even though both have made a living fixing shoes. What keeps the men holding on to their profession is the art and craft of the work — bringing new life to old soles and refurbishing boots and shoes.

Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

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