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Heeling shoes: Repair shop operator has customers from Cape Breton to Halifax

Kenny Pothier, who runs Highland Shoe and Watch Repair in the Highland Square Mall, makes a living fixing items many people throw out. (Rosalie MacEachern photo)
Kenny Pothier, who runs Highland Shoe and Watch Repair in the Highland Square Mall, makes a living fixing items many people throw out. (Rosalie MacEachern photo)

Kenny Pothier is in the business of saving soles – a Mr. Fix-It in an increasingly throwaway society.

For almost 20 years, he has worked in a shoe repair business, first for others and then for himself. It is a line of work he stepped into as a 17-year-old, straight out of high school and is not the kind of business where you get together with colleagues to discuss challenges or new directions.

“I’m the only guy in the business in Pictou County and there are lots of places where nobody does this kind of work anymore,” he said, adding he has customers from Cape Breton to Halifax.

“I like to think I bring a little bit of business to Pictou County. People like that I’m in the mall because it is easier than trying to find a back street location. I always hope people who come to me will visit a few other local businesses while they are here.”

Personal service is the hallmark of any one-person business or niche market and Pothier learned its value as a boy delivering the Evening News and shoveling driveways.

“I started working at 10 because I was the youngest in a large family and I was tired of hand-me-downs. For years, I had three paper routes and delivered 150 papers a day. I never complained about winter because when the snow came, there was extra money to be made shoveling driveways.”

For almost 20 years, he has worked in a shoe repair business, first for others and then for himself. It is a line of work he stepped into as a 17-year-old, straight out of high school and is not the kind of business where you get together with colleagues to discuss challenges or new directions.

“I’m the only guy in the business in Pictou County and there are lots of places where nobody does this kind of work anymore,” he said, adding he has customers from Cape Breton to Halifax.

“I like to think I bring a little bit of business to Pictou County. People like that I’m in the mall because it is easier than trying to find a back street location. I always hope people who come to me will visit a few other local businesses while they are here.”

Personal service is the hallmark of any one-person business or niche market and Pothier learned its value as a boy delivering the Evening News and shoveling driveways.

“I started working at 10 because I was the youngest in a large family and I was tired of hand-me-downs. For years, I had three paper routes and delivered 150 papers a day. I never complained about winter because when the snow came, there was extra money to be made shoveling driveways.”

Pothier may have inherited an entrepreneurial spirit from his father Whitey Pothier who once had a store on George Street and later operated the CNIB canteen at Aberdeen Hospital. He has never been out of work, but there have been times when he feared the wolf was at the door as shoe manufacturing changed throughout the years. Lately, he is experiencing an upswing in business, thanks to social media.

“After working alone for so many years, I discovered there is a whole network of widely scattered people in the shoe repair business. We call ourselves Shoe Repair International and it has been a great way of sharing knowledge and information about new products and new methods. It certainly opened my eyes to new opportunities.”

New primers and glues, for example, have made it possible for him to repair shoes that could not have been repaired a few years ago.

“Composite soles can be repaired today and that’s a message I try to get out to people. I can grind plastic away and put on rubber soles in some cases.  I can find you a sole with a better grip if that is an issue. There are more options than a few years ago.”

Pothier is on Instagram and Pinterest, but finds Facebook works best for his customer base.

“About once a week, I put up a post, usually a before and after photo of work I’ve done and it is a great way to advertise, considering I’ve never had a big enough business to have an actual advertising budget.”

He gets further advertising in posts by people who are happy with their new-looking shoes.

“There is something about shoes that people hate to give up a good pair. When you get a pair that fit just right, there is a real attachment.”

In addition to repairing or replacing soles and heels, Pothier stitches everything from leather jackets to purses, handbags and sporting goods.

“I can handle elastics and zippers, put on patches, do orthopedic buildups and fix Birkenstocks. The beauty of a small business is that you can bring something to me and I can look at it and tell you right there whether it is easy to fix, can’t be fixed or is something I might have a few ideas for fixing. There is no sending it away and waiting to see what is going to happen.”

Years ago, he added watch and clock repair to his business.

“It was another line of work people were getting out of, so I taught myself how to do repairs. For a while, watches became less common, but they are coming back in a big way, more as jewelry than as time pieces and there is always a need for new batteries.”

Pothier works six days a week and occasionally gets a friend “to babysit the shop” when he has to be away.

“Small business isn’t for everyone. You need to be able to adapt and you need to put in long hours. On the plus side, I really like dealing personally with my customers.”

Some customers get so used to Pothier’s fixes, they forget he can’t fix everything.”

“A guy brought me his shaver, but I had to tell him that was outside my wheelhouse.”

There is a broken rosary sitting on his counter – not exactly within his wheelhouse but he looked it over and saw a way he might be able to fix it.

“I know it is valued and I’m going to give it a try.”

A quick perusal of Pothier’s Facebook page shows a lot of Halifax area people are interested in his services, which raises the question of whether he could make a better living in a bigger market.

“Maybe, I don’t know. It doesn’t matter because Pictou County is home.”

 

Rosalie MacEachern is a Stellarton resident and freelance writer who seeks out people who work behind the scenes on hobbies or jobs that they love the most. If you have someone you think she should profile in an upcoming article, she can be reached at r.maceachern@ns.sympatico.ca

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