By CHRIS CASKEY
The Union Democrat
A lot of things have changed in downtown Sonora since 1972, but one thing’s the same. Rick Hanson still wants to save your soles.
When Hanson opened Rick’s Cobbler Shop on Bradford Avenue on April 3 of that year, he was located on a side alley in the middle of the city’s retail hub. Now his shoe repair shop is the longest-tenured family-owned business in the downtown district, meaning no one has been at their location longer than him.
“In the old days, downtown was the hub for shopping,” Hanson, 67, said while standing in his cozy shop.
Rick’s Cobbler Shop gained its distinction last month after downtown fixture the Princess Shoppe on 128 S. Washington St. closed with the end of its lease. Patricia Eaton operated the store since 1971, though her mother and grandmother owned it as far back as 1955.
Eaton decided to close the business because of a combination of health issues and an interest in more leisurely time, her brother told The Union Democrat in recent months.
A fountain of knowledge about downtown Sonora’s history, Hanson knew about the Princess Shoppe’s place in that history and was aware when he became its longest-tenured business owner. The close second is now Wallace T. Stuart Optometry, located on 48 S. Stewart St. Dr. Stuart’s office opened a month before Hanson started at his location — May 19, 1972.
In the old days, as Hanson calls them, downtown merchants included retailers like JCPenney, Montgomery Ward and a Sears catalog store.
“It’s just a totally different situation today.” he said.
Hanson will fill you in on the various owners and tenants of his building dating back to the 1860s. The room where the shop is located was once a justice court room. Before that, it was a living room and kitchen for a large house. Even further back, it was part of a cigar factory.
“They rolled the cigars right here,” said Hanson, who later showed off an old cigar he believes was wrapped on site more than 100 years ago.
Hanson learned shoe repair as a kid while running a coin-op laundry in Palo Alto and started doing it full-time at 29. The shoe repair business has changed dramatically since he started, when he estimates the county supported several shoe repair businesses.
“Shoe repair was always go, go, go,” he said.
Back then, more people would buy a good quality pair of shoes made in the U.S. and have them repaired two or three times, Hanson said. Low-cost manufacturing, cheap synthetic materials and overseas labor have driven the price and quality of shoes down since the 1970s.
Today, there are no sole-leather tanners in the U.S. He buys his from a company in Italy.
Hanson blames free-trade policies for making businesses like his seem like relics from days of yore.
“Most people don’t even know what cobbler means,” Hanson said with a laugh.
“I hated to see what happened in the industry. A lot of people did,” he later said.
That’s not to say Hanson is ready to shutter his doors. On a Wednesday morning, the shelves on his walls were lined with footwear of all sizes and colors ready to be fixed. Dusty, worn cowboy boots next to shiny black dress shoes. Work boots with ripped heels next to women’s shoes with high heels. There was even a pair of flip-flop sandals on one shelf.
He usually gets customers through word-of-mouth. Some people come up from as far as the Central Valley, he said.
“Most people that bring in shoes that get repaired, they paid premium dollars (for the shoes),” Hanson said.
So how long will Hanson be downtown’s longest-running business owner?
He can’t answer that question, he said. He still enjoys the work, and he wants to be able to help people with his skill.
But he does have some advice that he said he’s learned from the years working where he has.
“If you’re gonna talk that talk, you’ve got to walk that walk. But make sure you walk it straight,” Hanson said.