Paul’s Shoe Repair, a fixture in Westbrook, will move to Lisbon this summer and the property will become the site of a new mixed-use building. The trailer has been a shoe repair shop since 1978. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

WESTBROOK – The small red trailer that’s home to Paul’s Shoe Repair has sat for nearly 60 years on Cumberland Street, a fixture of the rotary that, to the left, redirects Main Street into the city’s downtown and, to the right, leads to the paper mill that was once the city’s most prominent employer.

At the end of the month, owner Paul Rowland will pack up his shoe trees and relocate to his garage in Lisbon, leaving the area with one fewer business that is rare these days, both for its longevity and the service it provides. When the new property owner begins making way for a mixed-use building in August, the distinctive structure will go too.

Originally a real estate office, the trailer became a shoe repair store in 1978 and a couple of years later was purchased by former city councilor Paul Leconte. So when Rowland took over in 1987, he didn’t have to change the name. Since then, customers have been bringing shoes, suitcases and handbags to Rowland, to fix a broken zipper, repair worn-out heel or work with specific orthopedic needs, like prosthetics or orthotics. He comes recommended by local doctors.

“They used to do all our work for the police department and repair our shoes and even the leather belt,” said Mike Sanphy, former mayor and police officer in Westbrook who works at the Westbrook Historical Society. “It’s unique, it’s quite an operation.”

Paul Rowland makes a repair at his Westbrook shop, Paul’s Shoe Repair. He’s moving his shop to his garage in Lisbon, at least some customers will likely follow him. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Rowland’s plan to leave town predates the pandemic. His wife was diagnosed with cancer four years ago, and the couple, who lived two miles from the shop in Westbrook, decided to move to Lisbon to be closer to their children and grandchildren. He’s been renovating a detached garage, where hopes to be up and running by mid-August.

He’s sure to have at least some customers follow him. Christine Fay, a Portland native who now lives in Richmond, Virginia, still brings her shoes to Rowland’s shop whenever she comes home to visit family.

“My family has been using him for decades,” she said. “I used to haul up all my work heels from D.C. Paul just does such a great job.”

Beth Harris Pervier of Pownal has no plans to stop bringing in her 89-year-old mother, who relies on his custom work to help with her mobility issues.

“He is like a trade master that knows how to handle putting together solutions that take creativity and skill,” she said. “He’s just a really good man who has served the community.”

Rowland, who turns 61 this week, became interested in shoe repair at a young age, watching his father work in retail footwear. He took an apprenticeship in Belfast where he found out just how much he loved to work with his hands and decided to buy his own shop. He’s spent the last 33 years in business building personal relationships and trying to contribute something to the community.

Paul Rowland has run Paul’s Shoe Repair in Westbrook for 33 years. At his new shop in Lisbon, he said, “I’m going to have a 20-foot commute from my kitchen door.”  Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“People come in, and it never quite matches up with stories (people) grew up with of the shoemaker, always this notion of an old cobbler. I have a quiet little shop,” he said. “I’m pretty happy working.”

Moving his shop to his home, Rowland said, will allow him to continue to focus on his loyal customers, as well as his family.

“I’m going to have a 20-foot commute from my kitchen door,” he said. “I’ll look out from my workbench and see the grandkids playing. That’s what it’s all about.”

Rowland said many shoe repair owners age out of the business and shops end up closing, which is why there are few left in the area. The customer base, however, is still there, he said, and has even grown in recent years.

“For a long time, the narrative was that this is a dying business. But then during the last recession in around 2008, somebody, somehow, somewhere started this boilerplate piece that you can save a bit of money (by using) shoe repair businesses. It entirely changed the narrative, and it’s the best thing that happened in forever,” Rowland said.

His business has also benefited from increased environmental awareness.

Shoe trees hang in front of a window at Paul’s Shoe Repair. Owner Paul Rowland says, contrary to popular belief, the shoe repair business is not dying, and benefited from the 2008 recession and an increased “green mentality of reduce, reuse, recycle, repair.”   Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“(We fit in) with the growing green mentality of reduce, reuse, recycle, repair,” Rowland said. “We’re a leader in the green transportation industry. Walking is the greenest form of transportation!”

During his time in business, Rowland has watched the city of Westbrook change, too, becoming less centered around the paper mill, now owned by Sappi, which looms just beyond his shop. “I used to give directions to the shop and say, ‘Do you know where S. D. Warren is?’ The relevance of the mill to the region is changing. Now I don’t think to say, ‘You know where the mill is,’ because (for) most people it’s not a landmark for them.”

Changes for the intersection where the shop is located are coming too, though not as soon as planned. A Maine Department of Transportation project to install traffic signals to help with traffic flow and safety was supposed to start this summer, but came in over budget and has been postponed until it’s either redesigned or becomes more affordable, Westbrook Mayor Michael T. Foley said.

Paul Rowland is selling the trailer that houses his business to the company that’s developing the property. It plans to advertise the trailer in the hope that someone will want it. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Meanwhile, Rowland is selling the trailer and property in Westbrook to Les Wilson & Sons, which plans to construct a building with a mix of commercial and residential space. Chris Wilson of Les Wilson & Sons said development of the property, which includes railroad tracks adjacent to the trailer, is slated to begin in August.

“The trailer will go, the tracks will go. I’d love to see somebody take the trailer (because) there’s not a lot of value, except historical value,” said Wilson, who plans to advertise the structure in hopes that somebody will want it.

Staff Writer Emma Sorkin can be reached at: [email protected]

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