Fixing for a living

Posted Feb. 13, 2009, at 8:56 p.m.

Cobbler Jonathan Lambert has never had to worry much about business.

His shoe repair shop, Yankee Cobbler, has had a two- to three-week backlog since it opened in Bangor four years ago. Nor has the daunting national recession, the worst the country has seen in 70 years, thrown him off.

“I am seeing a 10 to 20 percent increase in business,” Lambert, 30, said recently. “I am backed up four or five weeks, roughly about 300 pairs of shoes that need everything from a simple stitching to full soles.”

Thanks to the sour economy, he and other product repair people around the state say, people are thinking twice about buying new. Business is up for cobblers, vacuum cleaner repair people and auto mechanics as consumers try to put off major purchases until the economy, or their employment situation, improves.

While it may be too soon to declare the demise of the throwaway society, many Maine repair shops report business is good.

“Customers are trying to keep things running longer,” said Brian DiPietrantonio, owner of Best Vacuum Service in Westbrook.

DiPietrantonio recently repaired a 40-year-old Filter Queen vacuum cleaner by replacing its motor for $100 — a savings compared with the $1,500 it would have cost to replace the unit. And more rug shampooers and low-end vacuums are coming into the shop lately, he said.

Lambert sees the same thing.

“Most people beforehand would go out and buy an $80 pair of shoes without thinking about it, but now they are coming in to get a $40 repair on them,” he said. “Before this, they would just go and buy another pair.”

Nor are consumers buying new or used automobiles, said Don Simpson, owner of Foreign Auto Center of Orrington, an auto repair, body shop and used-vehicle sales operation. He said he has seen a 30 percent increase in repair business this winter.

“The cars aren’t selling. People are fixing and not buying. They are spending big money to keep their cars running,” Simpson said.

Some customers are so leery of extending their credit or spending more money than they have that they insist on repairs that to Simpson are ludicrous.

“People are putting $1,000 and $1,500 into repairing their cars when they can get a newer car for $3,000 or $4,000,” Simpson said. “I understand. I know money is tight with them, but I don’t think it’s worth it.”

Some are driving cars made in the late 1980s or 1990s, vehicles so old that he has to go searching much farther afield than usual — southern New England or New York state — to find parts for them. Junkyards are getting cleaned out, Simpson said.

“Winter months have always been tough on me,” he said. “We have a hard time keeping steady, but this winter has been very good to me. We have been pretty steady.”

After a dismal 2008 for retail sales, the National Retail Federation is predicting a 0.5 percent drop in sales revenue in the year ahead, the first annual decline in at least three decades. Sales declined 1.7 percent in the last quarter of 2008, according to the group.

But not all repair shops are celebrating the trend. Some watch and clock repair shops say customers are selective. Ken Rice, owner of Tic-N-Time in Windham, said he is replacing a lot of watch batteries but customers are not as quick to go forward with costly clock repairs.

“It is a two-spouse decision these days,” he said.

Thrift stores such as Goodwill Industries and Hands of Hope also report higher-than-average sales, while stores such as Sears and Macy’s are running drastic sales — some offering as much as 65 percent off on some retail items — to drum up foot traffic and business.

Beth Quimby of the Portland Press Herald contributed to this report.

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