Reminiscing about the days when as a tot he spent time in his father’s shoe repair shop, , Doug Herwaldt remembers it wasn’t unusual for his dad to send him up the street to pick up lunch or run small errands. Times were different then.
It’s not hard to imagine the downtown of old, where as a four-year-old Herwaldt ran errands. Herwaldt grew up at the shoe repair shop and started working there in the seventh grade.
As if out of the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, Herwaldt faced a twist of fate when during his senior year in high school his father died of a heart attack. The next year, while Herwaldt was studying at the College of DuPage, his mother became ill and died.
Herwaldt and his brothers had taken on the business and kept it running after his father’s death. He had started taking college classes and had hopes of earning a degree. With the death of his father and then his mother, he never finished his schooling, but he kept the business going.
At first, he ran the business with his brothers, but within a few years, he bought out the business. For the last 31 years, Herwaldt has owned the shop, which is in the process of celebrating its 60th anniversary.
“I always loved what I was doing,” Herwaldt said. “I loved working with shoes and I loved working with my hands.”
Herwaldt’s dad took over the business from the previous owner in 1951, but the repair shop dates back to 1906, he said.
A diverse history
The shoe repair shop has survived the last 60 years, going on 61. Shoe repair shops are a dying business, with many people opting to buy new shoes rather than invest in quality shoes and have them repaired. Nowadays, Herwaldt’s shop draws customers from far and wide, not just from Glen Ellyn.
“Our secret is we are very diversified,” he said.
From repairing shoes to leather altering, bag repair and tack work, the shop does almost anything. The store recently repaired tarps for the Glenbard West baseball team.
“Our motto is: If you can get it in my store, we can fix it,” Herwaldt said, adding the shop even sharpens tools, knives and lawn mower blades.
In 1955, his father started selling used ice skates after he realized how many people went skating on Lake Ellyn. That is one part of the business Herwaldt has never changed. He sells a variety of skates and has people coming in from all over looking for high-end skates, whether for hockey or figure skating.
Early on, Herwaldt realized he had a knack for the work and wasn’t afraid of using some of the machinery with sharp blades to do the repair work. He often took the more difficult jobs his brothers didn’t want to do, he said.
“Any business has its ups and downs,” he said. “But, I loved it.”
As he watched his friends grow and prosper in their business careers, he said he sometimes was envious. But, many of those same friends have had their own struggles in recent years, while his business has remained steady.
A dying field
While the recession hurt many businesses, the shoe repair industry generally experiences a major upswing as more people seek to repair items they already own.
“It’s unfortunate; when times get better, we become more of a disposable society,” he said.
Shoe repair isn’t a business many people are going into anymore, which is why he draws customers from around the area. Some of his customers have been coming to the shop dating back to the days when his dad owned the business, he said.
Being his own boss hasn’t been all that bad, he said. He has always loved what he’s done and he was able to coach his boys, Anthony and David, in sports and attend sporting events, much more than his father was able to do.
“I told my wife I want to be involved with my kids,” he said.
Small business challenges
For a while, the shoe repair business had three locations: Glen Ellyn, Naperville and Lisle. The Naperville location is no longer open, but Herwaldt’s wife Mary continues to manage the Lisle location.
The Glen Ellyn shop employs one full-time employee and three part-time employees, in addition to Herwaldt. In Lisle, Mary works with one part-time employee, he said.
Herwaldt works about 62 hours a week on average and that doesn’t include doing paperwork at home, he said.
“When you own your own business, that is what you do,” he said, adding that at different points in time he has thought about doing other things, but he’s made the most of the career he has.
“Owning your own business is really hard today,” Herwaldt said.
Paying for health insurance is always a challenge and he doesn’t want his children to have the same stresses he has experienced running the business. His oldest son Anthony will head off to college next week.
“People ask if I want my kids to do it, but I don’t push them that way,” he said. “I don’t think people understand the stress of owning your own business and the costs involved.”