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Bringing the cobbler the tired, weary, worn

As the morning Wall Street crowd rushed past Minas Shoe Repair, a group of women in dark business suits stepped inside, sorry-looking pumps in hand.

The shoe-shine stations along one wall were full. There was a line of tapping toes and shuffling feet a dozen deep, waiting before the black marble counter.

It was 9 a.m. Trading at the New York Stock Exchange, a couple blocks away, would start in half an hour.

Slowly taking a drag on his cigarette, Minas Polychronakis ignored the impatient crowd, picked up a sheet of sand paper and began rubbing it across the scuffed toe of a black leather Chanel ballet flat.

Just a year ago, the morning parade of pumps and business lace-ups seemed to rush past his shop, their owners too busy -- or too prosperous -- to worry about worn shoes. Now, it's time to fix old shoes.

The shoe repair business, the 68-year-old noted, tends to run counter to the mood of Wall Street. During the boom, he struggled to make the shop's monthly $8,000 rent. Now, customers are reevaluating the benefits of a $3 shoe shine, $8 lifts and new rubber soles for $30. Business is up.

After waiting patiently in line, a female customer put a pair of mahogany-brown Salvatore Ferragamo boots on the counter. Italian. Very expensive. An animal had chewed the toes and heels.

She was out of work and had a job interview coming up. The night before, she had ironed the wrinkles out of her favorite suit and resolved to fix her lucky boots.

"Baba, can you look at these?" the cobbler's daughter, Menia, 26, asked her father in Greek.

Polychronakis, his stocky frame slumped against the counter, saw art perched atop a 2-inch heel. It was the type of shoe women wore with confidence into Wall Street meetings, he noted. "You are not without hope," he told his customer. "Forty dollars."

The woman hadn't blinked at the $600 price tag for the boots when she bought them while working at a banking firm. Now, she winced at the thought of spending $40 as she stood before the counter in her black, water-stained Mary Janes.

"You paid 10 times, 20 times, that much when you bought them," the cobbler said as workers banged away with hammers in the back, behind the rows of wooden shoe forms and piles of spindly heels. "These are good shoes. You take care of them, they take care of your feet. Then, your feet take care of you."

He pointed to the black leather boots on his feet. He made them himself. The leather was sturdy and the arch firm. The bottom of the left boot was a wedge-like platform -- 4 inches taller than the right. He broke his leg as a child in Crete and spent four years in a cast.

"If the shoes are no good, the feet are no good," Polychronakis reminded the woman. "Bad times, good times, it all comes down to feet."

The customer nodded. Menia handed her a receipt.

The front door opened. It was a stock trader with sallow skin who was eager to get his aging business shoes cleaned. He joined the line. There was an investment banker who hoped to save his scuffed Bruno Maglis. A laid-off publicist who wanted her Chanel flats repaired.

Polychronakis thinks about retiring to Crete. But he won't. He sacrificed too much to rebuild his shop after it was destroyed in the Sept. 11 attacks eight years ago. Next to his perch at the cash register, he keeps a tomato-sauce jar full of ashes he scooped out of the rubble of the World Trade Center.

Maybe when this recession is over and the good times return to Wall Street, he could go home.

Menia dreams of designing shoes and carrying on her father's tradition. In the back, next to the sewing machines, she keeps stacks of footwear design magazines from the 1970s and '80s. She's read them so often, the corners of the pages have frayed.

Menia's in college, studying psychology, but she's thinking about taking a break. She's pleaded with her parents: What's the point in getting a degree right now when there are no jobs?

Her father refuses to listen: Menia will live at home in Astoria, and she will finish school. His daughter's hands won't look like his, the skin yellowed and cracked, he vowed. Someday, she will be with all the others, the Wall Street people, on the other side of the counter.

Father and daughter watched as a customer left after dropping off a pair of expensive shoes. They both noticed that the woman seemed to have neglected the pair on her feet.

There were scratches deep in the leather. The shoes' worn-down heels exposed a crescent of white plastic, leaving the woman with a slight duck-walk stride.

"She doesn't see the problems at her feet," the cobbler said to his daughter. Menia nodded in agreement.

p.j.huffstutter@latimes.com

On the Edge Times staff writer P.J. Huffstutter and photographer Genaro Molina are traveling the country, chronicling the hopes and struggles of Americans in this time of economic hardship. latimes.com /hardtimes Find stories from this series and from the Business series "Surviving Recession: A Consumer Guide."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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