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The Shoe Doctor is in

December 18, 2005|By DANIEL J. SERNOVITZ

daniels@herald-mail.com

Donna Hershberger takes on the aura of a master craftswoman as she gives herself to the joy of her trade, though she dismisses the notion her "hobby" is anything complicated or beyond the grasp of anyone inclined to learn and invest the time.

The 49-year-old Hagerstown resident simply enjoys the process of turning back the hands of time - or the shoelaces of time more appropriately - and then standing back to admire her handiwork.

"There's nothing really hard in here," Hershberger said. "It's mostly time-consuming. Anybody can learn it if they want to take the time. I call this my hobby because I like doing this. I see something when I'm finished. They come in raggedy-looking, and when I'm finished, they look pretty good."

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Hershberger is one of a dying breed, and as owner of The Shoe Doctor at 627 W. Washington St., she is the only cobbler within the city of Hagerstown. Beyond her store, which she bought with its combined Laundromat from Nick Vindivich in August, the next closest and only other shoe repair shop locally is Eby's Shoe Repair at 17323 Reiff Church Road outside the city limits.

New customers who wander into Hershberger's cubbyhole of a workroom often are doubly surprised, she said: First, because many did not know people still repair shoes; and second, because The Shoe Doctor is a woman.

"A lot of my customers say, 'I never knew shoe shops existed anymore,'" Hershberger said. "I get a lot of women that come in here and they'll be amazed. They'll say, 'Oh, you run this?' I get women who come in here and say, 'Good for you, honey!'"

The Shoe Doctor is just one of several jobs for Hershberger. In addition to it and the Laundromat, Hershberger runs a small cleaning business and works full time as a correctional officer at Roxbury Correctional Institution.

Hershberger dabbled in the shoe business, on and off, for five years before she bought The Shoe Doctor. She learned the tricks of the trade while working as a janitor for a cleaning company also operated by Vindivich and adjacent to The Shoe Doctor when it was at 109 S. Potomac St.

"When I'd get any free time, I'd go out and watch them," Hershberger said. "I'd ask them, 'What are you doing? How do you do that?' I knew I liked it."

The Potomac Street store closed in April 2001 after a fire damaged the building, and it reopened in January 2002 after repairs were made, according to published reports. Hershberger said the store moved from Potomac Street to West Washington Street in October 2004, and she bought the business, and the combined Laundromat, in August after carefully weighing the proposition for about five months.

The Shoe Doctor inherited its shoe-repair monopoly within the city of Hagerstown after Dok's Shoe Repair in Long Meadow Shopping Center closed more than a year ago. Howard Eby, who took over Eby's Shoe Repair when his father, Arnold, died about 10 years ago, said to an extent the business has become antiquated.

Most people, Eby said, are far more inclined to throw their shoes away when they fall into disrepair rather than having them fixed. He said while there still are a variety of high-quality shoemakers around, the majority of shoes on the market are of lesser quality and fall apart more easily.

"The throwaway age," Eby said. "There's more people buying the cheap shoes."

Eby, who worked as a farmer before following in his father's footsteps, said at first he was not sure if he wanted to learn the trade because it has become so specialized. Still, he said, he has some loyal customers who buy higher-quality shoes and hope to maintain them, and he has come to enjoy the business.

"I'm not sure. Sometimes I wonder if I should have (gone into the business)," Eby said. "When I first started, it was surprising how much I didn't know."

Residents continue to look to cobblers such as Hershberger and Eby in cases where they are not quite ready to say goodbye to their shoes. Jill Craig, a Keedysville resident, said she turned to Hershberger with a pair of shoes that had split at the toes.

"If I get another three years out of it, I'll consider myself fortunate," Craig said. "I wasn't sure whether it was possible or not. I decided it was worth trying, this one, because it is a comfortable shoe."

Hershberger said she usually will work on several pairs of shoes concurrently, hammering heels or soles onto one pair while waiting for glue to set on another, and at certain times of the year, her multi-tasking can be essential. The late spring and late fall normally are the busiest times of the year, she said, as people begin to inspect their summer and winter shoes and boots and discover signs of wear.

"I've always (done) things with my hands, and I don't mind getting dirty," Hershberger said. "Sometimes they think I can do miracles. I've had shoes come in here falling apart, and they'll say fix them. I try to tell my customers, too, when they come in, don't wait 'til they fall apart to bring them in."

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