Living to work: 93-year-old shoe cobbler says he'll never quit

MGN
Wednesday, May 15, 2013 - 10:54am

Henry Linder did try to give up the shoe repair business once.

It was 1991, and he was about to turn 72. He figured he was ready to stop fixing footwear and spend more time in the yard.

That lasted about three months. Linder and his wife were on Social Security and needed a little extra income -- but mostly, he missed his customers.

Now, at 93, this gentle craftsman with a thick Southern accent, a faded blue apron and a gift for gab is still charming customers in the shop behind his home in Landrum, South Carolina.

Linder is a beloved fixture of Landrum, a town of 2,400 people in the Blue Ridge Mountains between Spartanburg, South Carolina, and Asheville, North Carolina. He has been featured in countless local newspaper stories and was the grand marshal of the town's 2008 Christmas parade.

"I make other people happy, or I think I do -- they say I do," Linder said in an interview with CNN this week. "People want to know when I 'm going to quit, I say when my toes are turned up."

After learning about Linder years ago, a local filmmaker thought the cobbler deserved a little more recognition. He wasn't alone.

Erik Olsen's 2012 short documentary about Linder, "The Shoe Cobbler," won the Community Choice award in the 3rd Annual iReport Awards announced Tuesday. The three-minute film was picked by audience votes from among 36 nominees in six categories of audience storytelling.

"This was a wonderful look of what America can be at its best," one viewer wrote. "We need more Mr. Linders in our society."

Linder, who doesn't own a computer, is a little baffled by the attention.

"I guess people are just interested in me. I'm thankful for that," Linder said. "I guess they think it's pretty fascinating to be an old man still fixing shoes."

When Olsen made the film, he said he felt he needed to share Linder's story before it was too late.

"The fact that he's still on his feet ... his attitude about people and business is just so uplifting," said Olsen, a former news photographer for a couple of ABC affiliates in North Carolina. He went into the shop one day, asked for an interview, and edited the piece that night.

Linder was 17 when he first started repairing shoes during the Great Depression. Horseback riders make up much of his business, but over the years, he has given new life to all types of leather products, including children's baseball gloves, handbags and even a lady's corset (that was probably his oddest request, he says).

In the late '60s, he made a pair of shoes from scratch for a crippled child with clubfeet who walked on the sides of his feet. He used modeling clay to make molds of the child's feet and then chilled the molds in the refrigerator so he could stretch the leather over them.

"I can still remember the molds sitting in the fridge," said Linder's youngest son, Tim Linder. "There weren't as many resources to help such children like there are today."

His customers know Linder as the guy who can "renew the hopeless loafers and make your old favorite live again with a shine," said Tommy Lytle, a health care executive and longtime customer from nearby Tryon, South Carolina. He's had Linder fix several pairs of Weejuns and Cole Hahn loafers and boat shoes.

"I always say 'Wow!' by reflex when I get mine back. You would too," Lytle said.

But even if Linder had quit fixing shoes years ago, Lytle said, it would still be worth the trip into Linder's Shoe Service to see the owner grinning.

A few other facts about Linder: He prefers apple cobbler to peach (with vanilla ice cream), and he really is as sweet as he seems, according to Tim. He himself owns five pairs of shoes, favoring those made by Bostonian and Allen Edmonds, which he says are "about the best you can get."

The cobbler business isn't what it used to be. With shoes made more cheaply, most people would rather buy a new pair than pay $45 for a new set of heels and soles. That's one of the reasons Linder's son, who worked alongside him for a few years after high school, didn't follow him into the business.

But horseback riders and other loyal customers give Linder a steady business, enough to keep the shop open three days a week. He also looks after an older son with disabilities. Both those endeavors helped keep him going after the death in 2001 of his wife, whom he cared for until she died, Tim said.

Linder is hard of hearing now, and slower on his feet; but if you go into the shop, he still greets you with a cheerful smile, asks where you're from and tries to figure out if he knows your relatives. He's always loved to talk.

"I've made more friends than I've made money, I imagine," he told a reporter once. "I've got the nicest customers in the world."

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