HOPE, Maine — When his passion for cabinetmaking faded, 63-year-old Carleton Leavitt turned his hands to shoes.
“People’s shoes are funny. They’re very sentimental to them,” he said, picking up a pair of tawny, suede kitten heels. “These old ones, the piping was warped. Now she has a new pair of shoes for $30.”
The shop, named Kiss My Boots, doesn’t yet support itself. It’s only open Mondays and Fridays. Leavitt works as a goldsmith for a local jeweler the other three workdays each week, but hopes that one day he’ll be a full-time cobbler.
With no experience and zero cobbling knowledge, Leavitt jumped at the opportunity to buy up shoe repair equipment when Coastal Cobbler on Main Street in Rockland closed last fall.
To start learning the skill of cobbling, Leavitt went to Google. With the Internet guiding him, he started building his first pair of boots as a way to teach himself the basics: a simple pair of black motorcycle boots built around a mold of his foot.
“The first pair took me three weeks. The second pair took me two days. They’re the most comfortable shoes I’ve ever owned,” he said.
Since then, Leavitt has become comfortable with resoling shoes, attaching new heels, dyeing and sewing leather and grinding leather on cowboy boots to make them look old.
“Who would have known?” he said, looking into a box filled with dozens of rubber pieces attached to screws. “I didn’t know what a heel tip was. I don’t know where you learn this — I don’t think there’s a school for it.”
Leavitt has bought several books on cobbling to help him. The owner of the now-closed Coastal Cobbler also helped by giving him a crash course in the trade.
Perhaps his scariest shoe experience, Leavitt said, was zippers. His mother and wife — who both dabble in sewing — warned him about how difficult zippers can be. So when a local equestrian brought in her otherwise perfect black field boots, Leavitt got the jitters.
“I was way scared. I didn’t want to ruin her nice riding boots,” he said. “She said she trusted me.”
Leavitt took a knife and cut above the heel to the top of the tall boot and began sewing in a zipper.
“It turned out all right. I put in a flap so you couldn’t even tell there was a zipper there.”
As he told the story, two size-16 feet walked in. Attached to them was Langley Willauer of Hope, who pulled a shoe out of an antique leather bag. He fingered the rubber sole, which flapped.
“You can see I tried and failed with the glue gun,” Willauer said.
“That’s [a] cheap [repair]. $10. Maybe $15,” Leavitt said.
“Well, we want to keep you around. Haven’t had a cobbler in this town for 100 years.”
Leavitt has run businesses in Hope since 1990, when he opened a cabinet shop.
“It’s really become an artist’s town since then,” he said.
In fact, Leavitt is working with local artist Chris Pinchbeck, who makes bagpipes in town. Leavitt plans to help make some of the leather bags used for the pipes.
“I can see myself doing this into my 80s,” Leavitt said. “I love it.”