LISBON — Paul Rowland is one of those people you meet who should have been born in another time. Perhaps he was switched at birth with the parents of an anthropologist and the parents of a cobbler.

He’ll tell you that at the height of the guild trades in the Middle Ages, the shoemaker guild was very esteemed. They catered to the wealthy, making new shoes. The underclasses — who couldn’t afford the skill of the guild shoemakers — had to rely on people who worked on shoes, but who were not in the guild.

Guild members began to refer to them as cobblers. “What’s cobbling?” Rowland asked rhetorically. “It’s pounding stones into mud and dirt. It’s something beggars and idiots could do. So, it was a term of derision.”

Finally, he cleared it all up. “I’m not a shoemaker, I’m a cobbler,” he said with a smile. Cobblers these days are increasingly sought-after, following a precipitous drop in the number of shoe repair shops, which people seem to remember were on every street corner in Maine at one point.

Paul Rowland pries the sole off a pair of work boots May 3 at his Lisbon shop, Paul’s Shoe Repair. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

Rowland said a number of factors affected the shoe repair business, which was strong in the post-war era of the 1950s and ’60s, when a culture of thriftiness and necessity prevailed. Massachusetts-based United Shoe Machinery Co. was the largest maker of shoe-making machinery through much of the 20th century and would rent or lease its equipment rather than sell it. Rowland said the company — which has merged and morphed into a part of Black & Decker — would set cobblers up with the tools and machinery to repair shoes with no upfront costs, making it easier to set up a shoe repair business.

Decades later, domestic shoe manufacturing slowed to a trickle or migrated offshore and cheap foreign imports flooded the market. “Shoes are easily replaceable,” Rowland said. “They’re manufactured largely to be disposable, regardless of cost.”


The question becomes, where else can you go to have your favorite pair of shoes resoled, get a new zipper sewn into your favorite leather motorcycle jacket, repair a purse or luggage, or to custom adapt your everyday footwear because one leg is longer than the other?

“To this day, where do you find a cobbler? Their shops are tucked away in these dirty little holes,” Rowland added. “Now, I have a nice, bright shop because I just built it out three years ago.” With only four full-time cobblers actively working in Maine right now, Rowland said he’s not the only one doing it out of his garage.

Paul’s Shoe Repair at 350 Lisbon St., Lisbon. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

For 33 years, Paul the Cobbler operated out of a rundown, old, red trailer in Westbrook — and people still make the drive to Lisbon to find him today. “I spent a lot of money on duct tape and glue and spray caulking and drywall screws keeping that thing together, and it eventually got to the point where it was literally falling in on my head,” he said.

Global warming, climate change and sustainability are all words associated with the “greening” movement that encompasses scientific, social, environmental and political attitudes that are changing in this country. That greening has translated into more people trying to hang on to goods like shoes instead of tossing them out.

Rowland said the greening mentality has also pushed the threshold of what people are willing to pay to repair their shoes — higher than it was before. “We have also captured another generation of customers that we were failing to capture — which is the younger generation.”

It’s a two-edged sword explained Rowland, because customers come to him insisting on repairing some footwear that can’t be done easily, or cheaply.


“So, you’ve got $350 hiking boots that are in great shape, but the substrate that forms the bottom of that boot and the upper end of that actual wear tread is completely degraded,” he explained. “I don’t have access to those compounds or the molds to that shoe. There’s nothing happening in a shoe repair shop that closely resembles how modern footwear is made, when it comes to the types of compounds, injection molding equipment …”

The end result, Rowland said, is that the cobbler must reconstruct the boot’s essential bottom and then rebuild it differently, which he said changes the boot. “It’s now not the modern hiker they wanted but a very stiff, heavier, Bavarian-style hiker.”

There is no flood of applicants to learn the trade, but with a good mentor and two years of working full time, Rowland said anyone could learn the skills and own a small business.

“There’s profit here, I make a living. But we went without for many years,” he said. “We raised four children, we never had health insurance. My kids grew up knowing we were going without. We spent time with no car. I bicycled 8 miles each way to work 12 months out of the year for a number of years so that we could get one legal car on the road that my wife and kids could have.”

Rowland said they had to accept some help from family and friends at different points to make it through.

“But now, I’m living in the lap of luxury! But it’s taken 40 years to get here. And I’m not complaining.”


As with most small businesses, dealing with the public and having a good personality are almost requirements if you want to succeed. Rowland said he’s had some amazingly interesting people walk into his shop. Think about it, “everyone wears shoes, people from all walks of life.”

Paul Rowland works on a pair of boots May 3 that were brought into his Lisbon shop, Paul’s Shoe Repair. Rowland has a strict one-week turnaround time that keeps him busy. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

Paul Rowland interacts with his customers and says that his job gives him a sense of community, a sense of value.

“People want to look one another in the eye and what happened was we make an agreement of trust. My responsibility is to hold up my end of that trust. The customer’s responsibility is to hold up their end — which means come back and pay me for the work.”

He said customers implore him every day not to retire. So don’t get him started. His addiction is work — and he gets satisfaction from his work.

“I can see someone couldn’t do this if they didn’t find some satisfaction. And the work itself can seem like a grind. It’s dirty and stinky. I mean I spend my day with my hands in people’s old shoes. Think about that. It’s OK, you don’t have to shake hands when you leave, I won’t be insulted.”

As if on cue, the phone rings again. “Hello, Paul’s Shoe Repair …”

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