Once Upon a Job: Most Maine Cobblers Have Walked Away From the Trade

Jul 7, 2017

According to an Oxford University study, nearly half the jobs considered indispensable today, from loan officers and paralegals to baristas and waiters, will disappear over the next 30 years.

As lifestyles and technologies change, so does the demand for certain occupations. For example, when’s the last time you saw a lamplighter, a town crier or even a door-to-door salesman?

“Once Upon a Job” is a series looking at some of the uncommon skills that are still being put to good use. In this installment, we travel to Bangor to meet a man who spends a lot of time looking down at the pavement.

“I’ve been staring at shoes for 20 years. It’s one of the first things I notice about people. It’s just habit, you know, you’re walking along the street and you’re looking at people’s shoes,” says professional cobbler Jonathan Lambert.

Yes, he says, sometimes people are surprised to learn that cobblers still exist, and not just on the pages of a fairy tale.

“I don’t have elves, no, they revolted a long time ago,” he says with a laugh.

Jonathan Lambert of Yankee Cobbler in Bangor.
Credit Nick Woodward / Maine Public

Lambert, his mother, and a 19-year-old apprentice work out of a shop in downtown Bangor. The family-run business known as Yankee Cobbler is a cheerful jumble of strapless sandals, busted biker boots and pointy prom shoes, all waiting for attention.

If a shoe can be fixed, Lambert says he’ll do it, whether it’s a $5 flip-flop or a $1,000 pair of designer boots.

“Typically if you’re spending $100 or more on footwear, it is typically worth repairing, and a savings compared to buying new,” he says.

But we live in a throwaway society, where people can buy a budget pair of shoes for as little as $10.

“Correct. That is one of the challenges that we run into as a trade,” he says. “It is a declining trade, so what’s typically happening is people retire, or have to leave the trade due to medical issues or whatever, and there’s no one to take them over. So they either try to sell the equipment at wholesale or try to find a buyer, and they buy it at minimal cost.”

When Lambert set up his business 12 years ago, he was able to acquire a complete shop’s worth of machines for cutting, nailing, gluing and stitching as a single lot on eBay from someone getting out of the business. So he says it was affordable, even though much of the equipment, such as the stitching machine, is pretty old — 19th century old.

Ryan Trundy (left) and Jonathan Lambert at Yankee Cobbler in Bangor.
Credit Nick Woodward / Maine Public

Lambert became interested in shoes as a high school kid when he got a job with a shop that specialized in orthopedic footwear and Birkenstocks. Bangor had its own cobbler, the old Yankee Shoe Repair shop, but in 2004 it was gutted by fire.

Soon, desperate clients were sending their beloved combat boots, broken heels and torn soles to the next nearest cobbler, 60 miles away in Waterville. The onslaught caused that shop to seek an apprentice, and it was Lambert who answered the call.

“I thought it would be a good career path so I went down and trained with him part time for close to a year and I’ve been busy ever since,” he says.

At times, Lambert says he was overwhelmed with work, so overwhelmed that his customers were waiting as long as six months for shoe repairs. But after taking on an apprentice and getting his mother to help out, the wait is now less than a month.

Projects run the gamut from replacing heels and fixing worn-out toes to restoring family heirlooms like antique boots and vintage pumps. Some customers, he says, quite literally want to walk in their grandparents’ shoes.

Judy Lambert, Jonathan Lambert's mother, helps with large stitching jobs at Yankee Cobbler in Bangor.
Credit Nick Woodward / Maine Public

Once upon a time, every town in Maine would have had at least one cobbler. Not only did they do the usual fixing of boots and shoes, but they also repaired belts and harness straps.

With new technology, 3-D printing and increased automation set to overtake a number of jobs in the coming decades, Lambert’s not sure how long he can keep filling a niche. In his mid 30s, he’s a long way from retirement, but he does wonder what his business will be like in 30 years.

“I’d like to see our society move back into the quality over quantity, you know, in items that are repairable rather than throwaway. I do have two young sons, so, Lord willing they’ll be willing to take it over or one of them will — we’ll see. If not, I suppose I’ll try to sell it and get somebody in here that will care about the community as much as I do and make a go of it,” he says.

There are only about 10 professional cobblers left in the entire state. The man who taught Lambert everything he knows? He’s retiring this year.

This story was originally published on July 7, 2017, at 3:00 p.m. ET.