By: Don Carter
PORT TOWNSEND - Five people have come here from far
corners of the country to revive an ancient craft, one that nearly
a century ago fell victim to the machine age.
The five are learning how to
make shoes, by hand.
Each of them paid a little more
than $3,000 to come to this old Army barracks at Port Townsend's
historic Fort Flagler for an intensive month-long workshop on
The five who responded to Cosmopolis
Shoemaker Alan Zerobnick's ad in Mother Earth News have a variety
of somewhat different visions with a common theme: Independence.
Cliff Stout, 48, is a computer
operator for one of the major oil companies. He flew here from
New Jersey because his company is cutting back the payroll, "and
also this seemed to be a good way to slip into retirement...
it's not physically demanding and I could do it long after normal
MY OWN BOSS
The oldest novice Shoemaker,
Arlen Johnson, came from Anchorage. Now 51, Johnson says he's
been barbering at an army base for 22 years "cutting 40
or 50 heads a day." He'd like to open a small barber shop
in the city, and was attracted to Shoemaking "because I've
been looking for something to do in the downtime, and I've had
my fill of reading."
Gigi Hay, 29, is the only student
from Washington State. She lives in Ashford, spends 5 months
a year working on trails in Mount Rainier National Park, and
says she needs "something to do the other 7 months... and
I definitely want to be my own boss; that's kind of a dream of
It is a dream of Independence,
and definitely not one of wealth.
"I try not to paint anybody
a rosy picture," says Shoemaker-turned-teacher Zerobnick,
36, whose bushy beard, long braided hair, and laid back manner
make a statement of values about wealth and independence. "I
tell them that if you start right now, and work as fast as you
can for the rest of your life you can't begin to fill up one
Kinney's Shoe Store. I tell them to think small and stay small."
" THE RAT RACE "
For a Shoemaker, Zerobnick explains,
a good week's production is 3 pairs a week. Using Zerobnick's
figures, 3 pairs a week sold for $125 to $175 a pair means a
gross of $18,750 to $26,250 less materials cost of $7,500 to
$9,000. That nets an annual income of $11,250 to $17,250.
But that's enough to survive
outside "The Rat Race", which Zerobnick says he left
some years ago. The Colorado born man worked in television and
marketing. He started and operated a backpacking equipment company,
but "packed it up" in 1976 to head West. He made his
first pair of shoes - for - himself and began to make others
for friends who admired his efforts.
To learn the Craft, he read about
it, did it, and consulted with some of the few remaining Shoemakers
"who now are in their 70's and 80's" and with younger
HIGH ENERGY LEVEL
Zerobnick says he's turned out
about 400 pairs since then, working in the cabin he built near
Cosmopolis. Since he has no electricity his only power tool is
a treadle-operated sewing machine designed for leather work;
in the beginning he used only hand tools, but discovered the
$1,500 sewing machine was necessary for survival.
All of the hand tools, as well
as books and enough leather for about 15 to 20 pairs of shoes
are included in the $3,000 the students pay for the "Tenderfoot
Workshop". The package also includes rooms in the old Army
buildings, as well as board, gourmet natural-foods faire prepared
by Olympia caterer David O'Hanesian. Three weeks into the workshop,
enthusiasm still seams running high among the students. Several
of them mentioned "the high group energy level" that
keeps them at the leather cutting boards and sewing machines
until 11 or 11:30 every night.
"Those two boys are strictly
the greatest," says student Stout of teachers Zerobnick
and John Cushman, a Shoemaker from Yachats, Oregon. Cushman's
a former Wisconsin Landscape Architect who "came out for
a 2 month vacation and stayed for 2 years."
With her classmates, Hay has
advanced in the curriculum through making her first pair of sandals,
then moccasins, shoes and boots. She is wearing the pair of boots
she just completed and pronounces them "the most comfortable
footwear I have ever had."
And it is comfort, beams Zerobnick,
that creates a market for handmade shoes selling for $100 and
One of the main problems of factory-made
shoes, he complains, is that the "lasts" (forms from
which shoes are fashioned) are made in standard sizes and that
"the average human doesn't have standard feet." The
front part of the foot may be wider than standard, the heel narrower,
or the arch positioned differently. "Look around you on
the street someday," he says, hunching forward and making
an excruciating face, "and you'll see a lot of people like
that (who need custom shoes)."
Another problem with factory-made
shoes, he says "is that most of them are disposable."
It's a matter of economics, he continues, "that they keep
looking at how they can save a nickel on each of a million shoes..."
STILL ON THE ROAD
So on one of the workshop tables,
there's a number of shoes that have been dissected to show assorted
sins: glue used where stitching is necessary, single stitching
instead of double, fake leather, plastic heels made to look like
stacked leather, cardboard innersoles and more.
"Some of the first shoes
I made are still on the road after 7 years," he says proudly.
"While Shoemaking is still
the same Ancient Art it always was," Zerobnick concedes
he's made a few concessions to modern technology. One of them
is the "goop" sole, made of shredded auto tires and
cement for extra cushioning. "Man was never intended to
walk or stand on concrete all day," he frowns.
The students learn how to make
traditional leather soles, of course, along with many other skills.
They learn how to make custom fit lasts, a process in which the
foot is set in plaster to make a mold from which the wooden shoe
pattern is eventually fashioned. A variety of experts, most of
them drawn from the Seattle area come on weekends for seminars
on such subjects as Foot Massage, Orthopedic Shoes, Podiatry,
Orthotics and Shoe Repair.
Video tapes are made of the seminars,
so students may review them at their leisure.
He plans 3 other seminars this
year, in March, October and November. His "ultimate fantasy"
is to establish a Vocational School for Shoemakers.
Wouldn't that create a lot of
"Not really," he responds.
"If I have 4 classes a year with 10 students in each of
them, that's only 40 a year, less than one per state." Although
some cities, such as Seattle, have several Orthopedic Shoemakers
who'll custom-craft shoes for problem cases, Zerobnick he's discovered
many other cities have none.