Committed to a vanishing craft

By Bill Rautenstrauch, The Observer September 21, 2011 07:19 pm

Keith Johnson, current owner of Andersonís Shoe and Leather Goods, says the shoe repair business picked up after the start of the recession. Johnson estimates he spends 50 percent of his time at the shop doing repair work. BILL RAUTENSTRAUCH / The Observer
Keith Johnson, current owner of Andersonís Shoe and Leather Goods, says the shoe repair business picked up after the start of the recession. Johnson estimates he spends 50 percent of his time at the shop doing repair work. BILL RAUTENSTRAUCH / The Observer

While many shoe repair shops are fading away, La Grande man stays devoted to line of work that’s been in his family for more than 100 years

Hunt through the cluttered recesses of Anderson’s Shoe and Leather Goods in downtown La Grande, and you’ll find hand tools that date back to the 1800s, and machines from the Depression Era and before.

Talk to the owner, and you’ll be addressing someone whose family has been involved in the shoe repair and leatherwork for more than a century. He can tell you about an ancestor who became a cobbler’s apprentice in Sweden, brought his skills to America, handed them down to the next in line.

Those skills were, in fact, handed down again, again, and yet again. They came, finally, to Keith Johnson, current owner of the store and a man who remains committed to what amounts to a vanishing craft.

“I enjoy it. I like the people who come in, and I like working with my hands,” said Johnson, proprietor of one of the oldest businesses in the downtown district.

The store’s history in Union County stretches back to 1919. That was the year Keith Anderson, the 11th child of Swedish immigrant Anders Anderson, packed up his father’s tools and machinery, not to mention his family, and moved from Riverheights, Utah, to Union.

“They were Mormon immigrants. I remember my grandfather as a quiet, hardworking man,” Keith Johnson said. “I remember he was active in the church and scouting, but he stayed away from political things.”

Anderson bought an existing shoe repair shop in Union and made his living there until 1948. Then he decided to purchase a harness and leather goods store in La Grande.

He moved cross county, combined his shoe repair operation into the new enterprise, and did well.

In 1955, Anderson’s son-in-law, Alfred Johnson, went to work at the store, located at 1407 Adams Ave. Alfred had done a stint in the Army in World War II, then become a watch and clock repairman. He switched occupations because he developed eye trouble.

“One day I woke up with double vision, and I decided no profession was worth my eyesight,” Alfred said.

Alfred grew up on a ranch in Idaho and knew some things about leather, but found out he had a lot more to learn. Leo Anderson patiently brought him along.

“I had to learn how to run the machines and how to take care of them. I worked six days a week, and relieved Leo whenever he needed me to,” he said.

Today, a twinkle comes to his Alfred’s eye when he recalls busy, prosperous times. He took ownership of the store in 1965.

“When I was here, people came clear from Redmond to have me repair their cowboy boots,” he said.

Alfred and Virginia Johnson’s three sons grew up working in the store, but only Keith stayed on. He took over the business in 1977.

In 1986, Keith leased the store out and tried some different occupations. For a while he worked as beekeeper. In his absence the business suffered a downturn. He re-acquired it in 1988 and worked to build it back up again.

In the years since, he has branched out, adding canvas stitching, and sales of retail items ranging from harness hardware to leathercraft kits to foot aid products like insoles.

He has also built a specialty in repair of Birkenstock sandals, and manufactures some leather goods on his own, including sheaths for multi-purpose tools.

But in so many ways, the store remains much as it was when it was founded. Keith Johnson uses the repair machines his grandfather did, and fixes shoes, lots and lots of them.

“We’re principally a shoe repair shop. I spend over 50 percent of my time on repair work,” Keith said.

That end of the business has always had its ups and downs, and currently it’s enjoying an up. In a recession, people are more apt to have a pair of boots or shoes repaired; in good times, they’re more likely to throw them away for new ones.

“I’m not doing the business I was 20 years ago, but I’m double where I was three years ago,” Keith said.

Keith is in his mid-60s now. Though he’s not close to calling it quits, he worries sometimes about the future of his beloved old store.

For one thing, people tend to buy cheaply made, low-quality shoes over and over again, rather than a good pair that can last for years with a some love and care.

For another, it’s hard to interest young people in shoe repair and leather work because it’s not lucrative enough and requires a lot of manual labor.

The hard reality is, shops like Anderson’s are fast disappearing.

“In 1950, there were 30,000 shoe repair shops in the United States. Now, there’s under 7,000,” Keith said.

He said he’d like to train a young person, preferably someone in his family, to take over. That could happen, but then again, it may not.

“Then I’ll  get old and close up the shop,” he said.