Charlie Fonte’s business serves all walks of life.
Everybody wears shoes, and everyone needs them repaired or adjusted sometime.
So in his 54 years of working on shoes, Fonte has handled footwear for the famous, including Frank Sinatra, Lady Gaga, Gwen Verdon, Ann-Margret and many other entertainers.
Mike Tyson came in with his manager to get a pair of new shoes stretched to make them more comfortable.
“I’d only seen him on TV. When he came in, he was as wide as the doorway. I put my hand out to shake hands — and I’ve got a big, meaty hand from my job — and my hand just disappeared into his,” said Fonte, 64, of Somers Point.
Fonte put new bottoms on shoes Nik Wallenda uses to walk the tightrope and worked on Miss America shoes until the pageant left town.
Lady Gaga sent her shoes in to get slip-resistant bottoms and a strap changed, he said.
Shoes for showgirls, in fact, are a reliable niche of Charlie’s Shoe Repair, which for decades was located in Pleasantville until storm damage required it to move to Absecon last month.
“We do things like put braces underneath the shoe where the heel and sole meet, so if the heel ever breaks, at least they have the brace on there that will stop it from going,” Fonte said. “We put special rubber on the soles and heels to stop them from slipping on stage. Dancers really beat them up.”
Fonte and his wife, Linda, offer lots of leather services beyond repairing shoes and replacing soles, heels, straps and hardware.
He does orthopedic shoe work, dyes shoes to match outfits for events such as weddings, and adds elevations and buildups for people with one leg shorter than the other.
She repairs and patches handbags, and together they fix luggage and solve zipper problems on leather jackets.
Fonte said if he’s not too busy, he might make a repair while the customer waits. Typically shoes are ready in one to three days, depending on what’s involved.
Fonte had his first shop in Atlantic City, and moved to Pleasantville to take over the shop of his late uncle, Anthony Stella, when he retired after 72 years repairing shoes.
“One day he called me up and said, ‘I’m retiring. You want my shop?’ I said, ‘Uncle, I’m in the business 20 years already.’”
Fonte said he started working for his uncle at age 9 and learned everything about shoe repair from him.
Other than the challenge of moving a lot of heavy equipment, the storm-forced move to Absecon has been a blessing, he said.
“This is a great neighborhood, perfect for what I do. There’s a dry cleaners, a couple of barbers, a bank, a British place, a perfect little shopping mecca,” he said of the New Jersey Avenue district.
The main challenge to his business nowadays is that the construction and materials of modern shoes — often compressed leather shavings or synthetics — leave them more difficult to repair or simply not worth it.
“I try to be honest with my customers, and sometimes I tell them to put their money into another pair of shoes,” he said.
Long term, he worries the shoe repair trade and its set of specialized skills will be lost.
In the decade from 2001 to 2011, the number of shoe and leather repair shops in New Jersey dwindled further, from 33 to 26, federal data shows.
“Nobody else is carrying it one,” Fonte said. “I’m hoping to find someone interested enough to learn it so I can teach them what I know.”
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