Kevin Riordan: At 94, shoe repair man has no plans to retire

James Spinelli at his Quaker Shoe Repair shop on Tanner Street in Haddonfield. He lives in an apartment above the store and works six days a week. He started repairing shoes as a youth in Camden.
James Spinelli at his Quaker Shoe Repair shop on Tanner Street in Haddonfield. He lives in an apartment above the store and works six days a week. He started repairing shoes as a youth in Camden. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 24, 2014

James Spinelli was 11 when he became a shoe man.

This was in Camden, 1931. Spinelli was poor and small for his age, but he'd already been working for five years, selling vegetables from a little red wagon and peddling newspapers to saloon patrons. He also hawked Camden-style "yum yum" water ice on the corner of Broadway and Royden.

So when a guy walked out of a shoe shop downtown and offered a job to a crowd of boys walking by, the skinny kid from Clinton Street said yes. He made $1.50 a week to start, and he's been fixing other people's footware ever since.

"I've always been a one-man shop, and when you're a one-man shop, you have to do it all," Spinelli says from behind the counter at Quaker Shoe Repair in the heart of Haddonfield.

The father of five lives above his cozy, cluttered establishment on Tanner Street. Six mornings a week, he walks downstairs, turns on the lights and radio, and gets to work.

On Saturday, when he turns 94, Spinelli will be on the job as usual.

"Vacations? I don't like them," he says. "Retire? I didn't learn to spell the word."

Styles have changed, and these days many shoes are slabs of cemented-together synthetics, easily discarded. But a person can still get his or her favorite footwear fixed at Quaker.

"I tear shoes apart," Spinelli says. "And I put them back together again."

He starts by picking up, say, a pair of pliers from the inky tangle of tools on his workbench, slipping a shoe in need of attention onto his metal last.

It resembles an inverted foot on a pole, and eight decades of stripping soles and hammering heels have rubbed it to a shine.

In the same way, the nails he once gripped between his teeth have left him with gaps in his smile; ink has sunk into the deepest creases in his fingers.

Spinelli listens to NPR as he moves from the bench to the intricate, vintage machines and devices he uses for stretching, stitching, and sewing.

"He's amazing," longtime customer Dorothy Peppard says. "I hope he stays in business forever."

How much longer is a subject under discussion with his sons, James Jr., of Mount Laurel, and Albert, of Marlton.

"He has sacrificed his entire adult life . . . in order to help his children," Jim, 71, says later in an e-mail. "Each one of us owes him a debt we can never repay, other than [by] showing him all the love and respect he deserves at this time in his life."

Spinelli would rather talk about how he left the Camden store after a few years and landed a job at Quaker Shoe Repair, on 69th Street in Upper Darby.

He's still grateful to the owners, a family named Caruso, for teaching him the trade and for selling him the business when he was 19.

The shops he later opened in Westmont and Haddonfield have all carried the name Quaker Shoe Repair.

"My career has been the most wonderful, greatest thing," he says. "Having come from where I came, with my parents being so poor. But it's not a sad story."

Except the part about Frances, the Camden girl he wooed by taking her to a Broadway show ("I didn't know a thing about New York").

They later married and had two children, but while he was serving in the Navy during World War II, Frances died of cancer.

Nearly 70 years later, talking about his first wife can make Spinelli tear up. "I'm sorry," he says. "I really don't feel I want to retire. I want to keep going."

Another customer enters the shop. Fran Rushton, 84, lives in the borough; her sleek pair of Ferragamos needs new heels.

"Tuesday. Will that be all right?" Spinelli says.

"Terrific," says Rushton.

856-779-3845 @inqkriordan

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