Boots…

By all accounts, last year was a great year of fishing.  My logbook lists just shy of 50 trips, excluding many half hour jaunts on the pond to unwind after work.  So during my early spring gear tune-up and overhaul, it didn’t surprise me that my boots were in pretty sad shape.

I contemplated, dare I say, putting them out to pasture.  After all, I’d owned them since I started fly fishing some 10 years ago.  I bought them mainly for bass fishing in the rivers – a relatively inexpensive but classic design – and Hodgeman’s no less – still made in America back then.  They’d served their master well, and the mantra of this throw-away society hummed away in my head as I looked them over.  Those glossy catalogs of the big brand fly fishing purveyors sell a compelling story – faster, lighter, better, tougher…

Oh, the places they've been...

Oh, the places they've been...

The fly rod may be the heart and soul of a fly fisherman, but its his boots – the workhorse – that get him where he needs to be.  They take the most abuse – the lion’s share of wear and tear of all a flyfisher carries.  They are rarely in the picture of the beaming fisherman holding up the fruit of the day’s trip.  And at the end of the day the weary fisherman unceremoniously sheds them, and stows them out of the light, beneath his waders, the Rodney Dangerfields of the angler’s gear – not getting a whole lot of respect.  But like the weathered hands of a farmer, a well-used pair of boots has a story.  To anyone who sees them, they speak experience afield.  And they get better with age – fit better and somehow feel better.  So for these reasons, and the outright economic prudishness these times demand, I reconsidered the death sentence I was about to hand down…

There’s an old shoe repair store on the mostly bypassed main street of my town.  The stores that surround it are largely what you’d call micro businesses.  Some storefronts are shuttered looking for new owners, the victims of the big box retailers that now line the parkway to the east.  This little place sits among them – a classic sign marking its existence.  It is busier than one may think.

You won't find Gucci here, but he could repair them...

You won't find Gucci here, but he could repair them...

So I went there one day on lunch break, boots in one hand, new Hodgeman’s felts in the other.  Inside, the place breathed leather, shoe polish, and glue.  Behind the counter was a doorway, a window into the lonely world of the cobbler.  And in its bowels were shoe anvils, all types of tools – awls, picks, and mallets – and racks of laces, shoemakers stitching, and leather.  To the left of the counter were the fruits of true craftsmanship – neatly set in racks, tags hanging with names of owners.  Every shoe, boot, belt, and handbag was polished.  I began to feel good.

Inside that door waits a true cobbler...

Inside that door waits a true cobbler...

The cobbler soon emerged from the back, clad in a heavy leather apron, workshirt, and brimmed hat.  His whole appearance, including the neatly trimmed beard covering his jaw, spelled Amish and his hands testified to his work ethic – rough, caloused, and black with polish.  His demeanor was pleasant.  He studied my boots, turning them in his big hands – pulling the tongue back, examining the sides.

That they needed to be re-soled was apparent.  The felt was worn thin and in some places de-laminated from the boot bottoms.  But it’s what I didn’t tell him that he seemed to focus on.  “I can re-glue the inside sole”, he said.  He continued examining my boots, noting how the stitching on the outer sides was frayed and in some cases parted.  “I’ll re-stitch these here”, he added.  We settled the particulars – I could pick them up in a week.  He marked a tag with my name and phone number and set them in his pile of accumulating work.  He asked where I fished and I told him.  The Susquehanna he was not too familiar with – he had canoed a few local lakes, but not the rivers of the Southern Tier.  So, for the next half hour I told him about the fishing – the big smallmouth bass, walleyes, channel cats, carp, and musky that could be caught, and then about the wildlife that could be seen  – mergansers that flew like missiles up the river and the osprey that dove straight into the river like a rock dropped from the clouds and the eagles that cast big shadows where they flew, and the great blue herons that at a distance in the early morning mist looked like hunched old fisherman working a pool.  All these things I had seen because of my boots.

A week later I returned – a sunny spring day full of promise.  I picked up my boots, newly clad with bright white felts, neater in appearance, restitched, all put together, and ready for work.  The fee was so nominal I can’t recall it now, but for the memories they’d bring me, I should have paid a hell of a lot more.

Tight lines…

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