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Walking shoes for longtime shoe repairman?

Local institution of conversation, music and shoe repair up for sale

Posted: Tuesday, March 06, 2001

A downtown businessman has his fingers crossed that he's changing his career, although some of his Second Street neighbors half hope the deal doesn't go through.

John Lager, who has owned Family Shoe Repair for 27 years, has a prospective buyer coming to town next week. Lager and his wife, Barb Bradford, had just returned from a trip to Mexico when he received a phone call about the possible sale.

"We had just decided that we needed to move to where there's more sunshine and he called me out of the blue," Lager said.

With its worn and bent wooden floors and 70-year-old machinery, Family Shoe Repair is as much a Juneau institution for talk and music as it is a business. Piles of leather scraps, cans of shoe polish and stacks of tools muffle the whirring of the polishing, cutting and sewing machines. Posters and photographs of music concerts and Alaska Folk Festivals dating back to the early 1970s cover the walls and bring to mind more recent eras. The building itself dates back to 1884.

"Many people go in there on a daily basis just to talk. He is good at engaging people," said Paul Helmar, who owns a photo business in the same building. Around folk festival time, it's like having a concert next door, he said.

"He's a great schmoozer," said Dave Ottoson, who owns Rainbow Foods on Seward Street. "He loves giving his side of the conversation and if you need help, like a tool, if he doesn't have it he'll make something that will do."

Lager has worked for himself since he was 19 and can express the frustrations faced by most small business-owners, like the lack of health insurance and no paid days off, but he also knows what he likes about it.

"I love the problem solving, the people, and being able to call my own shots," he said.

He's also had the pleasure of having four of his children, Noah, Miah, Hannah and Sophie, grow up around the business. A fifth child, Jessica, lives in Washington state.

As Lager considers his future, neighboring business-owners are considering what the area will be like without him.

"It ruined my whole year when I heard he was selling," said Hy Tech and Bead Gallery owner Jim Dillon, who added he hopes Lager stays in business.

Ottoson of Rainbow Foods said individualists such as Lager run many of the small businesses in the upper part of downtown. He believes such people are helping local customers rediscover the downtown business district, especially the part that remains open year-round.

"We have a number of interesting little businesses," he said. "We see each other and talk about it all the time."

Lager's shoe repair business has been buffeted by changes in international trade as well as by changes in the local business scene caused by the increase of chain and "big box" stores in Juneau.

People don't resole inexpensive shoes, so a decrease in shoe prices means a corresponding drop in the resoling business, said Lager.

The growth in tourism, however, has helped make up for the drop in shoe repairs by locals. During the summers, customers from all over the world come into Family Shoe Repair and they bring a variety of problems. One group of women had seen a Las Vegas dance revue and wanted sexy outfits like the dancers wore. Lager went to work on the leather pants.

"I love the satisfaction that comes with solving all the different problems," said Lager.

One man broke his ankle building a house and had to finish the job before the summer ended. So Lager built him a giant shoe that fit over the cast. A woman had a purse with a broken clasp and had been to see a number of different craftsmen.

"I solved the problem with a rivet," he said.

Orthopedic shoes, particularly for people with one leg slightly shorter than the other, are also part of his specialty customer base. Lager held up one shoe he was working on to show how he disguised the extra layer of sole he has added.

If he sells the business, Lager and his wife plan to temporally leave Juneau. Both have elderly mothers in the Vancouver, Wash., area they would like to be close to.

And if the business doesn't sell, "I'll still be around to kick around," joked Lager.

Mac Metcalfe, a local free-lance writer, can be reached at agmet@ptialaska.net.



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