A Short History of Love & Shoes

A Short History of Love & Shoes

Vermont Magazine January 2009

Way back in 1958, Anthony Napolitano was polishing a customer’s shoes in a Bennington cobbler shop when he heard the news that the most beautiful woman in the world was arriving in New York Harbor. Without hesitation, young Tony put on his best suit of clothes and got his brother to drive him to the city to make sure he was there when she walked down the gangway. His mind was full of dreams of holding her in his arms and never letting go.

To make a long story short, Rosa was the last person off the boat. To make a short story long, one has to talk about family, Italy, immigration, the Great Depression, World War II, honest work and good fortune.

In the early 1900’s, Tony’s parents emigrated from Italy to work on America’s railroads. But in the 20’s, when the work dried up, they left their three American-born children with relatives in upstate New York and returned to the little town of Moiano, southeast of Naples. There, Mrs. Napolitano gave birth to another son; Anthony. The year was 1927.

In the Depression, Anthony’s brother Domenico—sixteen years older—found work in a Troy, New York hardware store. One day in 1936, a wealthy Bennington businessman named King came into the store, asking where he might find a good shoe repairman and, having apprenticed for a cobbler, Domenico offered to repair Mr. King’s shoes right there. Mr. King was delighted with Domenico’s work. The way Tony tells the story, Bennington needed a shoe repairman and Mr. King set his brother up in business in the Feinberg Building on Main Street. To seal the good fortune, he filled the shop with state of the art machinery. All Domenico had to do in return was to call the business King’s Shoe Repair. In a time when repair of all things was preferable to buying new, the business thrived. It didn’t hurt that Domenico was also a ‘people person.’

Tony continues, “When I was just 18, right after The War, I graduated from the Police Force Academy of Torino. I tell you, it was a dangerous time to wear a uniform.” He explains that, stinging from years of fighting and a humiliating defeat, Italians were both hungry and angry. Crime was rampant, and both ordinary people and the syndicate families took their anger out on policemen. Many were murdered.

In 1953 synchronicity struck. Tony’s contract with the police was due for renewal and Domenico’s partner in King’s Shoe Repair decided to leave the business. It being time to have his own shop, Domenico bought a building around the corner on North Street. It had two apartments above and he wrote a letter to Tony asking him to come to America.

“Growing up in Italy,” Tony says, “I kept hearing about brothers and sisters in America. And I didn’t want to be a policeman any more, so I told him, ‘Okay.’”

A small problem developed while Tony was waiting for his immigration paperwork; he met the most beautiful woman in the world. So what’s a man to do? For Tony it was a no-brainer. He married Rosa and—it being true that love makes people blind—she was willing to live with his parents, while he took the boat to America “to check it out.”

At first Tony shined shoes all day long. “Everybody had their shoes shined in those days.” He waves a hand toward the shoeshine bench, which still dominates one wall of the shop on North Street. It’s big enough to seat three customers at once. “We were open on Sundays. It was a big day, because people came in before going to church.” After three months, Domenico started Tony working with the machinery, and he loved it.

Two years passed. When Tony knew he would stay, he sent for Rosa, but with all the paperwork it took another eighteen months for her to arrive.” Rosa, a sweet woman with a warm smile, joins us. “I didn’t know a word of English and I hadn’t seen him for almost four years. I was nervous. That’s why I took so long getting off the boat.” That, and the fact that she had to carry all the baggage for two people. You see, she brought her daughter Maria, almost three years old, to meet her father for the first time.

“The policeman on the dock told me, ‘Sir you can’t go through there,” says Tony about seeing Rosa on the gangplank. “Well, I pushed right by him and ran over. And we’ve been together ever since. Fifty-one years. We moved right upstairs into the apartment next to Domenico.” The brothers worked together for ten more years, until 1968, when Tony bought the business and the building. He and Rosa remodeled the upstairs into one apartment that has served as their home ever since.

Downstairs, however, King’s Shoe Repair looks the same as it did in the fifties; old wood floors in the open area where you walk in, the shoeshine bench where conversations of joy, gossip and politics echo from the past. The shelves for new shoes anchor the far wall and, of course, there is a special green chair where patrons sit to have their feet sized. A high service counter cuts the room in half and, behind it, a modern cash register (from the sixties) shares space with a workbench worn from countless repair jobs. Its surface is buried in tools of every sort, thread, pieces of leather, an anvil and a vise. Behind that, the massive, black machinery from 1936 still hums like a Cadillac. In the adjoining room are several stitching machines. The tasks lie there as they did at the end of the day on Saturday ready for a man to pick up on Monday.

Tony and Rosa finish each other’s sentences. “He works all the time,” Rosa says. “I tell him he should slow down.”

Tony rolls his eyes good-naturedly. “What would I do up there?” he says pointing at the ceiling—the floor of his apartment. “I love to work. I got to keep moving.” Rosa smiles and nods. The love of a twenty-year-old Italian beauty still fuels the gesture. “I love repairing things for people.” His hands show his excitement. Beautiful workman’s hands. Strong and flexible, though he confesses that they’re a little stiff these days. “You name it, I can fix it. Hammocks. Suitcases. Tents. Anything. It makes me feel so good.”

“Baseball gloves,” Rosa says. “And harnesses. He sharpens skates, too.”

“That’s right. Things were slow once, so I figured out we could pick up a few bucks by doing skates.”

Rosa is comfortable in the shop, but she says ‘no’ when asked if she repairs shoes, too. “I do other things. I do tailoring and special projects. On the machines out back.” Her favorite is an old Singer treadle sewing machine, much older than either her or Tony.

“She replaces zippers,” Tony says proudly. “The heavy duty metal kind, on boots that come in and winter jackets.”

When conversation turns to the shoe business today, Tony explains that the quality of shoes is terrible. America sends its best leather overseas so foreign craftsmen can make fancy shoes for their own people. “And we buy the junk they make,” he says shaking his head. “You wouldn’t believe what they use in shoes nowadays. Plastic and cardboard. But, of course, I repair whatever people want. I once had a woman come in who said, ‘I can’t bear to throw out these slippers. They feel so good.’ They were just cloth and cardboard. Falling apart. There was nothing there, but I fixed them. I gave them back to her better than when they were new. She was so happy.”

As for the current recession, Rosa says that actually more people are coming in now than usual. And Tony shows no signs of wanting to retire. In fact, his goal is to become the oldest shoemaker in the history of the United States. But about the long-term future, they grow quiet. Neither can see it with clarity. Only a handful of people in the state repair shoes nowadays. “We would love to have some young person come in and learn the trade, Tony says, but it’s hard work. You have to be strong, and persistent and take pride in what you do. You have to be personable and be a problem solver.” He looks out the window as if trying to see a viable candidate. “The hours are long, and young people want to make a lot of money. You don’t make a lot of money in shoe repair.”

They agree on the keys to a successful business: service and honesty. “If you tell them it will be ready Tuesday,” Tony begins, “it has to ready Tuesday.” And Rosa finishes, “Otherwise they won’t come back. We’ve never needed to advertise; our customers do it for us.”

Tony recalls, “One day a woman called about losing her wallet somewhere in town. She had left it on the counter and I told her I was holding it for her. It was full of money. A year later she told me that she was surprised to see that money.” He smiles. “You have to treat people right. And people like to be greeted when they come in.”

Let’s be honest. Warmth is not a problem for Tony and Rosa. Talking with them feels like the prelude to sitting down for Thanksgiving dinner. “The best part of the business is the people. It’s like a big family. You have to understand, we don’t have much family here. So our customers are our family. We are still devoted to Italy and to the old ways, but Vermont has been good to us. We love this state. We love being here.”



Blue Uniforms and Yellow Jackets

Blue Uniforms and Yellow Jackets


Anderson Valley Advertiser   6/20/2015

I blame Yellowjackets. If they hadn’t stung me two years ago this week I’d never have become an EMT, sitting long shifts every week in the Anderson Valley Ambulance Barn waiting for impermanence to flex its muscles on the fate of our neighbors.

I was out raking hay by hand on that nice June morning when four of them little suckers roared out and stung me for scraping over their nest. I did the normal things: ran away cussing, ripped off my shirt to facilitate their retreat, and struggled with humiliation to be laid low by critters that weigh less than a gram. Then after admiring how my hand was swelling up where two of them had hit me, I got hold of myself and went back to raking. I’m over six feet tall. I’ve been stung many times. I can handle this. Stand back.

Rake, rake, rake. . . And what’s that? I lean on the handle a minute and feel my heart racing and my armpits starting to itch, where I know they didn’t sting me. Is it the heat? No, I thought. Must be adrenaline. But what about this feeling woozy? I blew right by the sign that I thought a shot of scotch would be just the ticket to settle me down, even though it was before noon. Mind you scotch, though a lovely drink, is something I save for company and Christmas. Well, 4th of July, too. Anyway, I set off for the house, thinking I was clever to be so creative and present.

But my lady is smarter than me. (Duh, she a woman.) Next thing I know I’m in an armchair, taking Benadryl and preparing to look bright and balanced to fake out the ambulance people who she’s called all the way out to the Deep End on a Sunday. I’m only partway through putting on my calm face and working up my story when firefighters in helmets and full gear and folks in civvies are walking in, radios on their hips blaring to some dispatch called Howard Forest, and hitting me with questions. I’m ready to give my speech and, damn, if they’re not talking with a helicopter circling overhead, trying to figure out the best place to land.

Okay. Now I want to die. Maybe that will teach them a lesson for making such a big deal of things. Though I’m not sure how that’s going to salvage my dignity with Valerie, who’s wringing her hands in a way that makes me think she wants me to die, too. And that should have been another sign. She rarely has a murderous thought.

Then the boys in ambulance-blue uniforms come in with medical bags along with a fellow named Don who gave off an aroma of apples, and they’re poring over me. I’ve got a blood pressure cuff on and some weird medical squeezing thing my finger and they’re flicking a flashlight in my eyes like I’m a drug addict. The only thing that keeps me from calling my lawyer is the fascination that I know a lot of these people. Mark, a damn fine builder is the lead EMT and Charlie, the tree surgeon, is the driver. What are they doing wearing ambulance uniforms and how come I didn’t know about their secret lives? And I do yoga with Kyle who has come in case she’s needed and there’s Martha smiling in the back having rumbled down the long dirt road from the mountains. For a second I presume they’ve all come for the religious service I didn’t know I was about to give.

I look for the microphone and instead they slap an oxygen mask on me, though I hear them say that it doesn’t look like I have sign of—and they use some long medical word—yet. But that they should take me to the ER just to be sure. I look at my lady and she’s nodding, right as I hear that the helicopter has landed down at Handley Vineyards. And I realize I haven’t sheltered my meager funds or updated my will the way I’d meant to.

The story would be better if I had really died or needed some four-inch needle jammed into my heart to bring me back from wherever it is that the White Light lives. But it turns out I’d had my first ever allergic reaction and my body handled it pretty well, with the help of Benadryl. And after a sweet ride with Mark in the back and watching him carry himself like a medical angel, I hung out in Ukiah Valley Medical Center’s ER, where I seemed stable enough to the staff to barely make them look at me. Very anti-climactic.

Still, with the sheen of my invincibility gone, I was now set loose on the slippery slope leading to death, and to prove it came home with two Epi-pens in my pocket to give me twenty more minutes of heartbeat if I ever got stung again and fell into full-fledged “anaphylaxis”—that’s the word they used—all for the low, low cost of $180 after the medical discount. (Valerie had been smart enough to sign us up for the ambulance membership—the best deal insurance deal in modern America, so the trip was free.) Gradually I realized I’d been missing some basic clues about how this valley operates. A whole darn volunteer ambulance service operates here 24/7, made up of people you see in the stores, at the Grange Pancake breakfasts or wine tastings. They show up when you need them and leave without any fanfare. Cool, I thought, as I flew back East to take care of things in Vermont.

While there, we heard news that Mark had a stroke, a bad one, and Charlie fell out of a tree and would be months in rehab. I did some quick math. If they’re all volunteers, they would need people. Which is how I entered the world Emergency Medical Services where I have met a wonderful set of women and men who do miracles and who blush when you raise the point with them. They study hard, train regularly and give big parts of their lives so you can have longer ones yourselves.

Our number is 911. Nothing personal, but we hope never to see you.