Alfred Conte of Lenox and Clarence Brown and William Froio of Pittsfield are young men in their profession. Conte is 42, Brown and Froio are 51. The three are shoe repairmen, a rapidly disappearing breed of craftsmen most of whom are in their 60s.
In other respects, however, these three are typical. Each has as much shoe work as he can handle, most of which involves resoling and re-heeling, and each is diversifying somewhat into related work, such as repairing handbags and saddle equipment.
On the other hand, Brown differs a bit from the other two in that he is part of a small trend within the industry. He is not self-employed, but works for Lincoln Shoe Repair, a chain of repair shops with a local outlet at 409 North St., Pittsfield. Also, he learned the trade at a shoe repair school rather than as an apprentice to a craftsman, and he’s not of Italian parentage as most men in the trade seem to be.
Conte and Froio operate their own shops — Conte’s Shoe Repair on Housatonic Street, Lenox, and Billy’s Shoe Shop at 592 North St. Both learned from Italian craftsmen. Conte was taught by his father, and Froio learned from a friend of his father.
Why is shoe repairing a disappearing trade? Apparently, there is no clear-cut reason. Conte theorizes that “the kids today are college-minded; they’re not interested in this type of work. Froio contends that “you can’t find any hired help; kids don’t want to work for this kind of money.” This means that youths aren’t around, therefore, to learn the trade he explains. As a result, Conte, at 42, is believed to be the youngest shoe repairman in Berkshire County.
And there aren’t too many left.
“I started out back in 1933, during the Depression,” recounts Froio. “There was a shoe repair shop on every corner; there must have been 40 or 50 in Pittsfield alone. I don’t think there are more than 10 in the county now.”
“There might be 15 left,” Conte estimates. “I joined my father just after World War II; there were about 40 around the county then. Now, there are two of us in Lenox, none in Lee, one in Great Barrington, maybe five or six in Pittsfield, one in Dalton and a few up north.”