If it’s broke, fix it

Caleb Diehl
Dorian Butcher repairs a shoe in his downtown shop

An economic rebound keeps the repair industry busy.

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Dorian Butcher has only ever held one job.

At 18, in his hometown of McMinnville, a friend’s parents, cobblers by trade, handed him a broom and told him to get to work. So Butcher learned the nuances of shoe repair, and in 2003, he and his wife opened their downtown Portland shop, Dorian’s Shoe Repair, on Southwest 6th Avenue.   

“It’s not really exciting and glamorous,” says Butcher, whose sartorial style calls to mind a fairy tale cobbler, complete with spectacles, dirty apron and long silvery beard. “But it keeps my cats fed.”

Before the sharing economy took root, the repairing economy reigned supreme.  A confluence of environmental and economic trends is bringing it back.

A report from the industry research service IBISWorld notes a slow but steady 1.3% annual growth in the $387 million shoe repair business.  In keeping with their environmental mission outdoor icons like Patagonia promote repairable gear to reduce waste. Dutch-style “repair cafes” like those hosted by nonprofit Repair PDX are growing in popularity. A nationwide “right to repair” consumer movement advocates for easy-to-fix iPhones, laptops and other electronics. 

IMG 1872Dorian Butcher at his shop in downtown Portland. | Caleb Diehl

Repair-focused businesses look at economic graphs differently than most companies. An economic downturn boosts their revenue.

After the 2008 recession, Butcher had a great year, he says. “Everyone woke up and said, ‘I’m broke. I’ve got to get my shoes fixed.’”  Eight years later, he tends to 40 or 50 pairs of shoes every business day. Most of the work is heel replacements, but he also stitches, resoles and laces.

Josh Sims, owner of Bend outdoor gear consignment and repair shop The Gear Fix, describes a similar post-recession experience. “People looked at purchases as more of an investment. I think we’re getting a little of the residual after effect of that.”

IMG 6849A sewer at work at The Gear Fix. Courtesy Katie Marvasti / The Gear Fix

Sims, a former raft guide, founded The Gear Fix in 2006 out of an interest in repair. Unfortunately, he says, the banks “weren’t handing out loans to 23-year-old bartender river guides,” so he built up a consignment business through online sales until he could open a brick-and-mortar. 

Now, however, growing interest within the environmentally-conscious outdoor gear industry has led Sims to once again spotlight repair services. Repairs for tents, backpacks, shoes and other gear account for around a third of the store’s activity (zippers are by far the most problematic feature). Repair revenue is growing at a steady 15%, Sims says, compared to about 30% for his overall business.

B&J Bookbinding, a Corvallis bookbinding shop founded in 1979, has grown over the past few years, owner Deb Denton says, even as digital replaces print. At her airy downtown store, which features antique printing presses, Denton mainly stitches up Oregon State University theses and antique family bibles that date to the 19th century. A smaller stream of revenue comes from photo albums, six-inch dictionaries and journals.

“People still like their history,” Denton says. “People still write in journals. They don’t want to write in tablets or computers.”

The recession may have renewed interest in repair. But the momentum hasn’t stalled out.. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics the number of establishments in repair and maintenance increased by about 3,000 between the first and last quarter of 2017.

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Antique bookbinding equipment at B&J Bookbinding

Local repair shops benefit from a national manufacturing focus on reuse, an industry trend known as the “circular economy.” Easily repairable gear helps retailers like Patagonia brand their gear as tough and long-lasting, Sims says, and bolsters their environmental image. Butcher looks forward to becoming one of few certified local partners for Vibram, the shoe and sole manufacturer.

Buy-in from the major retailers is key, because the repair process actually starts long before a product breaks. It begins on the assembly line. Many corporations still pursue a strategy of planned obsolescence, designing a product to break so consumers need to buy more. Others build in ways to repair the product easily. 

“The idea of designing something to be repaired — that’s the main difference in quality these days,” Sims says. “My main expense is the taking apart of something, not the actual repair.”

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A desire for repairable products animates the “right to repair movement,” activists pushing legislation in 18 states that makes it easy for independent repair shops, not just Apple and Microsoft, to fix phones and computers. Oregon passed right to repair laws for the automotive industry, but has yet to develop comparable legislation for electronics.

Much like other trades businesses, repair companies face workforce challenges. Schools these days don’t teach the mechanical skills needed for repairs by hand, and students see higher education or coding bootcamps as their only tickets to success. Employees in the repair and maintenance sector, according to the BLS, make an average of $22.95 an hour. But few are interested.

“At some point I’m going to have to pick my desired successor,” Butcher says. Butcher says he can teach anyone, provided they come in with the right mindset and solid hand-eye coordination, but “not a lot of young guys are coming up saying, ‘I want to repair shoes.’ Everyone’s been taught that if you don’t have a college degree, you’re garbage.”

IMG 1879Butcher works on a shoe with a Vibram sole at his downtown shop. | Caleb Diehl

Demand for the product, however, is strong. Consumers flock to the few repair shops that still exist. Climbers know The Gear Fix as the state’s only climbing shoe cobbler, and Sims receives orders from as far as Israel and South Korea. B&J repairs texts from Texas and Florida. Butcher’s record for longest shipment goes to a pair of shoes from Istanbul.

One sign of a growth market is the competition. Another bookbinder occupies a storefront three or four blocks away from B&J Bookbinding, and there’s one more in Portland. For competing climbing shoe cobblers, Sims looks as far as Rock and Resole in Colorado, and Rubber Room in California.

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Climbing shoe soles endure plenty of wear and tear, but few shops are available to repair them. | Caleb Diehl

Some 30-plus cobblers populate the Portland area. Many are run by Russians or Eastern Europeans.  “I’ll take the Pepsi challenge with those guys any day of the week,” Butcher says. (Several other shoe repair owners declined interviews with Oregon Business.)

Overall, repair shop owners feel bullish about their prospects. “As long as the college students still have to write a thesis I think I’ll still have a job,” Denton says.

As for Butcher, the cobbler says, “I’m excited about it. Do you know anybody who doesn’t own shoes?”

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