So, remember the “necessary goodness” I wrote about last week? And how we would need extra doses just to get through these tough days?
Here’s a little more.
Shani Newton has been a loyal customer of Ace Shoe Repair on Germantown Avenue in Mount Airy for years.
She’s routinely brought Mr. Willie — as customers call owner Willie Alston — her shoes and bags and belts for cleaning and repair. She’s also sent plenty of her customers his way, too.
Newton owns Dolly’s Boutique & Consignment just up the street, a longtime business on Germantown Avenue with a second location at the Fashion District Philadelphia mall, opened about six months before the coronavirus shut everything down.
Like other entrepreneurs, she’s trying to steer her business through the pandemic. She’s not sure when the Center City location will re-open. But her Mount Airy location is now open by appointment while she’s building her online sales.
In short, doing whatever she can to keep the dream going she’s had since childhood.
So, you wouldn’t blame her, or any business owner, for being laser-focused on her own survival.
Except last week, after visiting Alston and commiserating over the hardships of keeping business afloat with a lack of foot traffic and elusive small-business grants and loans, she took to Facebook:
“This is my buddy Willie, owner of Ace Shoe Repair @ 20 E. Mt Airy Ave (right near Germantown & Mt Airy Aves). The pandemic has really hurt his business in terms of customer traffic. Many business owners for various reasons have not been fortunate to receive support through grants and loans. Friends, I’m asking you to go in your closets and take Willie all of your shoes, sneakers, belts and bags that need cleaning or repairs.”
Her message caught my attention because I happened to be writing about how someone’s small dose of kindness was making a big impact. But also because I’ve been thinking a lot about what our neighborhoods will look like when we finally, fully emerge from the pandemic. A recent Instagram post I came across put it perfectly: Whom we buy from now will decide who’s standing later.
I mean, it should go without saying, but: Support your neighborhood-defining small businesses whenever and however you can.
Newton’s friends did not disappoint. The post was shared more than 800 times and the support didn’t stay on social media. When I called a clearly appreciative Alston, the 68-year-old cobbler said customers have consistently been coming through. Someone paid him $150 for a shoeshine, someone else $50 for a $20 repair job.
“It makes me feel good,” Alston said, “and don’t think I’m bragging right now, because when they come in, I don’t overcharge people, I try to keep everything fair. So all that goodness came back to help me.”
A little about Mr. Willie, who opened his current shop in 2008 with his partner Naeem Iddeen: He’s been at his craft for about 50 years, since he first shadowed a cobbler right out of the old Bok High School. He chuckled when he recalled some early mistakes. But he kept at it and went on to work at other neighborhood shops, including Carman’s Shoe Repair, a few miles up the road in Chestnut Hill.
Every morning, Alston, father to three and grandfather to 14, takes the subway from his South Philly home to his business and then back to the block where he and four other siblings live right next to one another.
“If my porch light isn’t on, they know it means I don’t want to be bothered,” he joked.
Repairing shoes can call for some long hours, especially when the one pair you might be tempted to put off for another day is inevitably the pair a customer picks up right on time.
But Mr. Willie is proud of the steady clientele he’s built with good work at a fair price. You can’t ask for more from your neighborhood business. And, he said, he couldn’t ask for more from his faithful clientele.
The other day an older customer who’s become a regular made Alston promise to call him if he found himself in financial trouble.