First published in The Record, July 27, 2017
Savvy, quiet and free, a Passaic cobbler goes his own way
Reynaldo Acuna's shop has no social media, no telephone, no TV, and no air conditioning. Business is booming.
If you are a person who finds it difficult to leave bed without first checking Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook on your rose-gold iPhone 7 Plus with 7-megapixel camera, 128 gigabytes of internal memory and built-in three-axis gyro sensor, perhaps you should call Reynaldo Acuna for a little perspective.
Actually, don’t call. A Google search for the phone number to Acuna’s cobbler shop, VIP Shoe Repair on Main Avenue in Passaic, produces zero hits, which is OK, because the shop has no telephone. Or computer. Or cash register.
If you’d like to see him, you should just stop by. Chances are good he’ll be there. Acuna works seven days a week.
He uses the time to mold the business in his own image: relaxed, savvy, quiet, free.
“I thank God for this place,” Acuna, 68, said as he stood inside his shop this week. “I make a living, and I don’t have a boss. I’m the boss.”
Many people in America make it their business to tell other people how to run their businesses. They write books and give TED Talks with titles like “Be Obsessed or Be Average” and “Dare to Disagree.”’
Acuna follows none of them. The machines he uses are more than a century old. He accepts payment only in cash. He rarely writes anything down, so he relies on his customers to remember how much they agreed to pay.
His store is more popular than ever.
“My dad used to drive trucks for me part-time,” said Acuna’s son, Harry, who owns a moving company. “But he doesn’t have time anymore because he’s so busy at the shop.”
Doing business by the Jewish calendar
Acuna was born in Yungay, a mountain town in northern Peru. He left school after the third grade to fish the nearby Rio Santa; his mother sold the fish in the local market. At 16 he left for Lima, the capital, where he worked in shoe factories. Eventually he founded Rey Casual Shoes, which manufactured women’s pumps and flats. At its peak, the factory employed 11 workers, and Acuna bought a comfortable house.
“I always wanted to be a boss, because in Peru the bosses have the power,” he said. “I was a nice boss, though. I always made sure my workers had plenty of food to eat.”
A recession in 1988 caused consumer prices to spike by 1,722 percent, the government reported at the time. Henry Acuna already had immigrated to New Jersey, so his father followed, moving with his wife and two young daughters. He landed at a commercial laundry in Passaic, ironing T-shirts.
The work was hot, loud and poorly paid.
“I worked at the laundry for six years, and all that time I said to my daughter, ‘You know, maybe America is not for us,’ ” he said. “I don’t like working for someone else.”
Acuna befriended a man named Donny DeSoza, who owned two cobbler shops in Passaic, one downtown and one on the south side of town. For years Acuna worked eight-hour shifts at the laundry, drove to one of the shops, and worked nights and weekends as an apprentice cobbler.
In 1994 DeSoza decided to sell the stores and move to Brazil. He offered Acuna the chance to buy either shop for $10,000.
The downtown store had more traffic, and made more money. But it sat next to a Payless and other low-end shoe stores, Acuna said, and many people in the neighborhood viewed shoes as disposable.
“When I got there, Donny had all these shoes sitting on shelves. I thought this guy must be making good money,” Acuna said. “But one month later, two months, six months, I see all the shoes are still there. People dropped them off, and they never came back.”
The Main Avenue shop was more to Acuna’s liking. It was slower, quieter. Many customers were members of the conservative Jewish community of Passaic and Clifton. And they were reliable, always picking up their repaired shoes by sundown on Friday, in time for Shabbat.
“Many people buy new things all the time. New, new, new,” said Acuna, who was raised Catholic. “They throw their money in the trash.”
Acuna bought the Main Avenue store, paying the $10,000 in many small installments. He found a clientele that shares his appreciation for thrift.
On Monday, Sandy Racklin visited VIP Shoe Repair for the first time to get her granddaughter’s dress shoes stretched out. Acuna said the job would cost $35 – too much for a girl’s shoe – and recommended that Racklin buy a new pair someplace else.
“You just don’t see that kind of honesty these days,” said Racklin, 75, who lives in Cliffside Park. “He reminds me of the old-fashioned shoemakers I grew up with in Brooklyn.”
Acuna wraps his life around his business, which is wrapped around the Jewish holy calendar. On Fridays, the busiest day of errands for many observant Jews, he eats a heavy breakfast, and works through lunch, to stay open all day. He works every Easter and Christmas. He takes eight days of vacation all year, four in the spring, during Passover, and four in the fall, during Sukkot.
“They depend on me,” Acuna said of his Jewish customers, “and I depend on them.”
'He likes his old machines'
When he works, Acuna wears a pair of leather slippers he sewed together himself. The soles brush across the concrete floor in a soft shoosh. He patches holes in leather shoes using a century-old Singer sewing machine powered by a foot pedal that clickety-clacks like an old train. Cash, plastic heel tips, elastic straps and chunks of old sole rubber get filed away in wooden drawers, which open and close with a hush.
His machines are mostly hand-powered. One stamper presses glued-together shoes with the tug of a hand press; another uses a hand-spun wheel to crank down on heels. Acuna’s largest concession to modernity is the combination shoe cleaner and polisher, manufactured decades ago by the Landis company of Canada. The machine’s motor makes an electric whoosh when Acuna flips the switch, located next to the manufacturer’s official seal, which reads “Own Your Own.”
The company’s newest model, the Primatec 1300, offers an LED lighting array and “a very powerful dust extraction system with a 99% filtration system,” according to its website. It costs $19,000.
“I like this one,” Acuna said of the older machine. “I can fix it myself.”
His shop has no television, no radio. There is no air conditioning roar, even on summer’s hottest days, because Acuna likes to keep his cobbler’s glue soft and pliable. In winter there is no central heat because Acuna doesn’t see the point.
“My dad likes things quiet,” Henry said. “He’s stubborn. He’s old-time. He likes his old machines.”
The quiet helps Acuna stay alert. Anytime someone walks past his store’s big east-facing windows, he glances up and checks them out. On Monday afternoon, Ryszard Krawiec of Clifton walked into the store and asked for his shoes, a black pair with thick platform soles and red stars sewn into the leather. Acuna said they were not ready.
“But I gave them to you months ago,” Krawiec said.
Acuna shrugged. Krawiec said he would return later in the week. After the customer left, Acuna was asked why he hadn’t performed the simple job of gluing the shoes back together.
“I left it to sit because I know this guy,” he said. “He comes back, but he takes his time. He leaves shoes for months.”
Acuna’s fingernails are long, and his hands are caked in black shoe dirt. But he is familiar with finer things. He likes to visit the Garden State Plaza mall in Paramus and shop for designer sunglasses. This week the plastic shelves in Acuna’s shop were filled with worn black workaday shoes belonging mostly to his Jewish clients, but a few designer shoes were sprinkled in, including a pair of black Ivanka Trump heels and some blue platforms by Miu Miu.
After the last customer left for the day, Acuna, a man who works seven days a week gluing and sewing tattered old shoes on ancient machines, produced a treasure. He emerged from a back door cradling a pair of men’s dress shoes by Salvatore Ferragamo, the Italian designer. They were exquisite, with perforated leather that shimmered from light hickory brown to deep mahogany depending on the angle of light.
He purchased the shoes last year from Neiman Marcus, Acuna said. He flipped them over. The price tag was still on the heel. It read $860, retail. The tag was unscuffed and bright white. The shoes had never been worn.