To some, the word “cobbler” may conjure an image of antiquity, a time when automation and industry hadn’t yet overtaken good old fashioned craftsmanship. Before that, cobbling had been a necessary vocation for as long as humans have been wearing shoes.
Shoe repairman may be one of the many professions that have fallen by the wayside over the years, but one look around Agabiti’s Pennington Cobbler workshop on Main Street suggests that the vocation is alive and well. The Pennington store’s curb appeal is furnished by a simple awning, emblazoned with the words “Shoe Repair,” below a more antique-looking sign that reads, “Agabiti’s Pennington Cobbler.”
Inside on one wall hang bags of shoes, finished work ready to be picked up by customers. Tables are covered with leather, vinyl, adhesives, tools, parts, and shoe strings. Behind the counter there is an array of sturdy, unfamiliar machines, many of them dating back to the 1950’s.
Working at one of those tables is Rich Agabiti, alongside his son, Anthony. Respectively, they are the second- and third-generation torchbearers of the Agabiti family business, which is celebrating its 70th anniversary this year. They, more than anyone, lament the modern world’s disregard for craftsmanship and fundamental knowhow.
“Most people don’t think my business is even a business anymore,” says Rich Agabiti, a Hamilton resident who attended St. Anthony’s High School (now Trenton Catholic Academy).
Yet the business has managed to survive 70 years on a sizable but shifting customer base. Their bread and butter has always been quality shoes, though they also repair hand bags and other leather goods.
The Agabiti business primarily works on well-made products that are less expensive to repair than to replace. “People don’t always throw away shoes,” Rich says. “You have people who buy cheap and throw them away and then you have people who know quality.”
He brings out two old shoes from the back of the store, a right-foot shoe from two different pairs. He bends both at the sole: one comes apart, the other holds together. He explains the methods of manufacturing each: the riven shoe is made of a one-piece sole glued onto the bottom, while the sturdy shoe’s sole is composed of several different parts meticulously stitched together.
“The average person can’t see it, but shoes will fall apart just like that,” he says.
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The business was started by Rich Agabiti’s father, Albert Agabiti. Albert starting doing shoe repair in Trenton at the age of 12. “His story was that he wanted to buy a bicycle, and the family didn’t have any money, so he went to work,” Agabiti says.
That was 1936. In 1947, Albert opened his first shop in Hamilton on South Broad Street where it stayed until 1962, when he moved in to the newly built Independence Mall.
The shop remained there until 1990. The Agabitis then moved the business to Lawrence Shopping Center until 2000, when the shop finally ended up on 14 N. Main St. in Pennington, where it remains today.
Rich Agabiti also started working in the shop when he was about 12—after school and on Saturdays. His father expected it. “In that generation, if you have a business, and if your children are old enough, they come to work,” he says.
Agabiti’s son Anthony, in a process reminiscent of apprenticeship, also began working in the shop when he was about 12. “That’s the age,” Anthony chimes in, standing in the front of the store.
He says that when he and Anthony were old enough to start learning the craft, they began by “working the brushes”—polishing the edges of the soles and heels of the shoe. After they had perfected working the brushes, they graduated to sanding and trimming shoe parts. Then, once they had spent countless hours in the shop, they moved up to work on the “finishing process”—the most important and detailed step since it is what the customer can really notice.
“Eventually he picked it up,” Agabiti says, pointing to his son. “You must have an artistic touch to do this work well, and Anthony is a true artist and has always been since childhood.”
Of course, being a cobbler has changed significantly since Albert Agabiti first began saving up his hard-earned money for a bicycle. Not only has the paradigm shifted for Rich as a business owner, but also as a craftsman.
“The biggest thing that changed is the synthetic materials that they use now instead of leather,” he says. “A lot of things today just fall apart. Even though they’re not cheap, they’re just not constructed properly.”
The business had to deal with these changes, but it had to deal equally with its change in location as it moved from Trenton to Hamilton to Pennington. When the business came to Pennington, Agabiti says that he wasn’t concerned about finding a customer base. Some loyal customers would follow the business, he says, but he was confident that he could find a new cohort of customers in Pennington.
“The rule of thumb was that you always change your customer base every seven years,” he says. “People move away, people die. It’s necessary to always have new people coming in.” But the business has had loyal customers, no matter where it’s located, some who Rich would see “almost every week.”
Although the customer base, the materials, and the craftsmanship itself have changed over the years, the Agabitis rely on a fittingly old-fashioned approach to spreading word about the business.
“There’s not much advertising,” Agabiti says. “It’s pretty much all word of mouth. Plus, the business used to be much more competitive.”
The shoemaking business is certainly less competitive now than it was half a century ago. Agabiti recalls a meeting that took place around 1960, when his father and about thirty other shoemakers gathered to discuss pricing, to make business more uniform, and to open a dialog among some of the “tight lipped owners who didn’t want anyone to know how they did things.” He says there are only around half a dozen shoemakers in the Trenton area today.
As Agabiti notes, the history of shoemaking is also tied to the European immigrant population. Many immigrants arrived in America with the skills they had learned in Europe, where shoe repair was and is far more prevalent. As family professions became less binding, generations strayed from their parents’ professions, and the demand for cobblers fell, very few families have preserved the vocational heritage of shoe repair.
Today, a visit to a cobbler’s workshop is a glimpse of what has been left behind, but to the Agabitis, it is a livelihood. On Main Street in Pennington, it is a way of life not entirely forgotten. Anyone looking to be made aware of earlier processes of labor—or processes of labor of any kind—would be hard pressed to find a more essentially human occupation than that of the Agabiti family.
Phone: (609) 818-0085.