The Cobblery: Quality craftsmanship stands the test of time

STORY BY DANA HUCH, PHOTOS BY DANA HUCH AND ARYA NASIKKAR

For the sole operators of the family-owned Cobblery on California Ave., engineering innovative and often slightly experimental solutions to a wide range of repair requests is the core of the business.

Manager and seasoned crafter Jessica Roth has taken on challenges like redesigning a backpack strap for someone in a wheelchair, elevating a denim belt with a one-of-a-kind leather embellishment and reconstructing an old favorite shoe pair to accommodate orthopedic needs.

Roth is pictured in front of her shop. (Dana Huch)

“I will try anything. I am a trier. I am a ‘It never hurts to ask’ person,” Roth said. “And sometimes I surprise myself.”

She and her family learned the craft of cobblery (a term Roth contends that her mother coined) entirely from generations of self-teaching and relayed lessons. Shoe repair is an unusual trade in that the only way to become a cobbler is through inheritance or apprenticeship.

Roth owns and operates the Cobblery on California Ave. in Palo Alto alongside her husband and her brother-in-law. Her family also owns the European Cobblery in Downtown Los Altos.

“I don’t know how people get into the trade if you’re not born into it, to be honest,” Roth said.

Fortunately, the passionate crafter found herself at home in the family business early on in life and spent hours after school exploring the possibilities of the materials. Roth described her serendipitous, play-oriented apprenticeship as “learning without knowing that we were learning.” In the playroom for her and her siblings in the back of the store, Roth made tiny doll shoes and purses out of real leather.

“My parents always encouraged us to get creative with the supplies,” she said. “It was like our iPad.”

With this harnessed enthusiasm, Roth was able to surpass the skill of her mother at a relatively young age. Nevertheless, every day in the shop offers an opportunity to continue improving.

Roth is pictured in the Cobblery workshop. (Dana Huch)

“I’ve been doing this for 27 years and I’m still learning new things,” Roth said. “I’ll come up with things and be like, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe I haven’t been doing it this way for so long!’”

One of Roth’s alteration specialties is resizing tall boots to fit various calves. She had done this for about 18 years with a tedious, imperfect process of measuring boot and calf circumferences until one day her inner inventive craftswoman stepped in and revolutionized a no-measure, perfect-fit guaranteed method. Roth improvised during a fitting by folding and using tape to resize temporarily while the client was wearing the boot before completing the alteration.

“I couldn’t wait to tell my mom,” Roth laughed. “I was like, ‘Wait until you see what I figured out!’”

In addition to the early mastery of her trade, growing up in the family store on California Ave. and interacting with customers gave Roth a sense of home in the business and a connection with the community.

One unexpected way Roth gives back to the artistic community that supports her family’s business is through her micro-grant public art installation, the Poppy Project. With funding from the City of Palo Alto, Roth teamed with a graphic designer and a local print shop to create decals that could be placed on sidewalks and structures. These scattered installations feature the state flower along with thoughtful words, brightening the full stretch of California Ave.

An installation of the Poppy Project is pictured. (Courtesy the Cobblery)

“Some of my words were mental health-oriented: ‘Awareness,’ ‘Courage,’” Roth said. “…I just wanted to lift people’s spirits.”

Curious crafters in the community also benefit from Roth’s “underground” nighttime classes which teach at-home repairs and offer open-ended workshops for those who want to create something using the shop’s materials.

“It’s super informal,” Roth said. “It’s not a running event or anything; just anybody that wants to learn … I will make the time to [teach them].”

In the future, she hopes to expand her workshops into summer camps or structured classes, in part inspired by a beret-making class Roth attended in Paris which planted new seeds for these ambitions.

Despite the delight the Cobblery brings to its community, staying in business as a small craft shop is a struggle in the tech-central Palo Alto region, where space isn’t cheap and interweb presence is imperative.

The Cobblery’s word-of-mouth way of business has not changed much since its founding in 1940, and is not exactly tailored to the modern world, Roth said.

“We’re really not tech savvy here,” she said. “We’re really cobblers.”

But even so, in the past decade the Cobblery has seen a demographic shift take place with new patrons gaining interest in their craft. In contrast with the usual older clientele who were attached to shoe repair by tradition, a younger generation is drawn to the business due to its environmental conservation and sustainability factor.

“Shoe repair was a dying trade,” Roth said, with an emphasis on “was.” “I have new hope because of the new generation wanting to not throw things in landfills, but for a long time we became a very disposable society.”

Roth explained that support for local craft businesses is a strong force in shifting towards sustainability on a large scale. Quality and repair are at the heart of shrinking human impact.

“We should care about our Earth,” Roth said. “We should definitely try to keep things around for as long as possible. … I think that buying nice things and keeping them around for a long time is not only good for you and your foot health, but you’re not being wasteful.”

The Cobblery is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at 410 California Ave., Palo Alto. The European Cobblery is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., at 385 State St., Los Altos.

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