Female cobbler goes toe-to-toe

PITTSBURGH – Surrounded by damaged footwear, a young woman heats some material, adds glue, then adheres it to one of the boots by giving it a squeeze to make sure it will hold. She pounds away with a hammer. Finally, she polishes the shoe.

The finished product looks much different than it did when it came through the door. This pair of boots has new life and new soles and is ready to walk the streets again.

Miranda Zapf is the 24-year-old cobbler from Greenfield. She repairs and shines shoes and boots at Gabriel Shoe Repair in downtown Pittsburgh. She is rare in this business that’s traditionally been a male-dominated industry.

“When people come into the shop, they are surprised when they see a woman,” she said. “But I’ve been here almost two years. I tell them I have experience and that they can trust me.”

And they usually do.

Troye Kovach, a regular customer from Scott Township, appreciates Zapf’s skill.

“You seldom see a woman shining shoes, but she’s been very good,” said Kovach, who stopped in Dec. 11 for a shoe shine. “Why not give her a chance? She does a good job.”

Zapf became interested in the business after watching her boyfriend, Tommy Callahan of Greenfield, shining shoes there. When he took another job, she asked owner Gabriel Fontana if she could learn. She often has 15 to 20 customers a day sit up in her chair to have their footwear cleaned. Shoe-shining requires learning many steps, and it’s also a good workout, she said.

After she mastered shoe-shining, Fontana appreciated her dedication and skill and showed her how to do repairs. Her first order was to fix a pair of high heels, which requires using pliers to remove the heel tab before replacing it with a new one.

You have to know how to use different types of glue and work with leather, rubber and plastic.

“A lot of customers come in, and they have shoes they love, and they don’t want to buy new shoes,” Zapf said. “They don’t have to, because we can give them new life. It really helps to know that Gabriel is watching over me. He has been so wonderful to work for. He knows everything about this business. He is such a great teacher.”

And Zapf is a great learner.

“She is very, very good,” said Fontana, whose shop has been at the same location for 41 years. “She knows how to do a lot, and she is not afraid to work. And, she learns quickly. She is good for this business.”

There are other female cobblers, but there are no specific numbers, said Mitch Lebovic, spokesman for the Shoe Service Institute of America, based in Maryland, a trade association for the industry that’s been around since 1904.

But, when women take up this trade, it’s usually because of a family connection. Zapf is rare, because she doesn’t come from a shoe-repair background.

“She is certainly in the vast minority,” Lebovic said. “The shoe-repair industry has not done a great job recruiting new members – female or male. But today, you see women in all kinds of industries. They aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty, because it isn’t the cleanest job in the world.”

Zapf learned that early on. When she is working, she wears jeans and washable shirts with Timberland or Dr. Martens boots. But when she’s off, she changes into a pair of Coach shoes or Prada heels and a dress.

“I really love it here,” said Zapf, who was a nurse’s aide at UPMC McKeesport hospital. “It is totally different than the job I was doing before. This is my calling, because I love shoes.”

Gail Leonardo-Sundling, who, with daughter Mandy Sundling-Young, own The Delmar Bootery in Albany, N.Y., said it is nice to hear of other female cobblers.

“There is such satisfaction in shoe repair,” said Leonardo-Sundling, whose parents were in the business. “It’s an art, and we all take pride in tackling a challenging repair as well as the everyday repairs. … I think, if more women knew about it, they would want to do it. I think it’s great that [Miranda] chose this field.”