Shoe-repair shop known for jam sessions, art, closes after 31 years

Posted: Monday, October 04, 2004

When the Family Shoe Repair closed Thursday after 31 years, it meant more than people having to find another place to get their torn Born leather clogs repaired.

The Second Street shop was a place where owner John Lager and other musicians jammed at lunch time or practiced before the annual Alaska Folk Festival. It's where Lager's daughter, Miah, displayed her artwork for awhile. Others just stopped by to talk to Lager, a local legend.

"It's been a place for musicians and for visitors to come and talk about politics or whatever," Lager said. "I guess I hoped eventually they'd get around to their shoes."

He later found out musicians never had any money for shoe repair, he said.

Lager, 54, is moving the business to his garage at 229 Highland Drive because of economics, he said. His rent was taking too much of his gross income, he said.

On Oct. 9, he's having a garage sale at his shop. What he does not sell he'll donate to the Salvation Army or discard.

"I'm really excited to be moving on," he said. "There are some sentimental attachments and there are some what-ifs, but the excitement about the future drives it home."

Customer Shirlena Montanye left a pair of dark brown Born clogs in a sack tied to Lager's door Thursday. She was in a hurry to see the Tibetan monks at the Alaska State Museum, and Lager hadn't opened for business yet.

"It was a hard choice between the philosophy of John or the philosophy of the Tibetan monks," Montanye said later, when she stopped by.

She, like many of Lager's customers, has been visiting the shop for years to get her shoes, bags and leather clothing repaired. But at Lager's shop, you'd get a little more than that.

"If you hit it right, you can hear some blues," said Ken Smith, who stopped in Thursday with friend, Daniel Collison.

Collison, a customer for about 20 years, dropped off a dark green suitcase that had a tear along the zipper. Lager assured him it would be ready by Tuesday, when Collison needed it to take a business trip to Anchorage.

"I like John," Collison said. "It's a small-town affair."

A lot of people like Lager. He gives off a warm smile and has a relaxed gait with hands in his pockets.

On Thursday, he was dressed in a tattered leather vest and blue jeans with a red bandana wrapped around his neck. His elk hide brown shoes were top of the line, because he made them himself. He's been wearing "handmades" for about 25 years, he said.

Shoe repair is art for Lager, who bought his first sewing machine in the 1960s and started making leather clothing at rock festivals. He began fixing shoes in a shop in Oakland, Calif., in 1971. He came to Juneau in the winter of 1973 from his hometown of Seattle, where he attended Burnley School For Professional Art and majored in art at Highline Junior College.

He officially stopped repairing shoes at the shop on Sept. 23, but did not close his doors until Thursday. Meanwhile, he's been selling items left at the store over the years. Leather backpacks, jackets and an electric guitar hang on his walls. Stacks of coats and boxes of shoes fill his floor. Many people haven't bothered to pick up their stuff over the years, he said.

"People die or move or they get pissed because I haven't fixed their shoes fast enough for them," Lager said.

While cleaning the shop, he found a string of five gold rings, one containing a diamond. He also discovered a 1955 black and white picture of his mother and siblings.

"That's what happens when you've had a place for a long time," Lager said. "You forget where you got them and they just turn up."

He strolled around the corner Thursday to pick up Erin Carrol from REACH's day habilitation program. Lager and his wife, Barb Bradford, run Mountainside Assisted Living Home out of their private residence, and Carrol is their client.

When he and Carrol got back to the shop, Lager got out his golf putter and hit a couple of shots. He plans to teach Carrol golf next summer at the Mendenhall Golf Course.

When Lager isn't fixing shoes, playing music or helping Carrol, he is a counselor for Juneau Alliance for Mental Health on Mondays and Fridays.

A guitar player, Lager has been a folk fest regular for years. He once played with the Tropicats, a 1960s folk rock group.

He later formed a back-up musical group, Hannah, Sophie & The Bluejays, featuring his daughters. Lager, who has six children, plays guitar in the group.

As for the music at the shop, Lager said it didn't die; it just moved. He can join local jam sessions or hold them at his house, he said.

"I'll just create them again," he said.

• Tara Sidor can be reached at

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