At Odessa Instant Shoe Repair, fixing your soles is an art form
Robert Glover thinks of fixing shoes like sculpting.
“Like making something out of clay. I’m taking a pair of shoes, tearing them apart and putting them back together,” he said, while sitting behind a counter labeled “No refunds” and surrounded by medieval-looking presses, clamps, shoe stands and single loose shoes.
The Roxbury native has now been fixing Boston’s soles for nearly 40 years. Working out of a small shop near Downtown Crossing, Glover, the owner and operator of Odessa Instant Shoe Repair works at his craft five days a week from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. He fixes heels, replaces soles on dress shoes and mends broken leather for clients in and around downtown Boston.
“I love working with shoes,” said Glover. “But other than that I like the people that I meet. I meet a lot of interesting people.”
In his tenure as a cobbler, Glover said he mostly deals with local professionals with offices close to the shop but has had more specialized clients too.
“I deal with a lot of lawyers, nurses and secretaries and doctors, but I get a very big kick out of working on celebrity boots,” he said.
Among the celebrities Glover’s worked with are Gene Simmons from KISS and pro wrestlers like the Ultimate Warrior and Brutus ‘The Barber’ Beefcake. He also opened his door to members of the Hell’s Angels mortocycle club. who he said came in for some jacket work.
Glover started his cobbling journey back in the early ’80s when a friend’s father told him about a job opening at a local Mr. Minit — a now closed shoe repair service operating out of Filene’s Basement. He first scoffed at the idea, having his sights set on becoming a police officer with the Boston Police Department.
However, after a disagreement with a superior officer about scheduling or some other long-forgotten offense, Glover said he was ready to take the plunge into what is now both his favorite pastime and source of income.
“I asked him was the deal still open and he said yeah. That’s how it started.”
After the closure of Mr. Minit Glover was then hired into a family business run by the Schegolev family — a clan of Ukranian immigrants that were surprised to see Rob walk through their doors.
“I ventured in, and he was there, the guy from Odessa. And I told him that I was a cobbler. And if you need any help, you know, I’d be willing to help him out. So he asked me to do some work there. Just I guess he wanted to see if I was the real deal,” Glover said. “And I guess in his words ‘Holy crap. He really is the real deal.”
He stuck with Odessa ever since — that is until he bought the storefront about five years ago.
Lenny Schegolev, son to a cobbler father fleeing Odessa, Ukraine under Soviet rule, is the owner and operator of a slew of Odessa shoe repair stores throughout the Boston area. The business, named after the cherished homeland is one that Glover said he wanted to keep even after he came into ownership of the downtown location.
“I actually keep the name Odessa in honor of my friend’s mom and dad because they’re really, really good people,” he said.
Recounting his time working with the Schegolev’s, Glover says he, a Black kid from a majority Black neighborhood in Boston in the ’90s, and Lenny, a kid with immigrant parents coming into ownership of a family business that was once a lifeline to a better life, became close among the shoes and the machines.
“I got to know the whole entire family so well that when the father and then the mother passed away, I remained working with the son. And we developed such a close bond that when the son wanted to sell the store he gave me the opportunity.”
Lenny gave Glover the chance to put away wages from his paycheck over years, combined with a loan from his wife, to eventually buy the shop for $50,000.
And while he loves his time behind the counter, bent over his shoes, Glover said the business has not been able to keep up with the costs of living. Compounded by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, inflation and other economic pressures the cobbler has had to take on a second job with the MBTA as a transit ambassador.
“For the most part, working as a transit ambassador is a good job because there’s no lifting, no pulling. I think the only thing hard about doing that is dealing with a bunch of negative people that can test you to your limits,” Glover said. “So when I’m at my shop, everything is a lot more cooler. Calmer.”
Glover said his hope is that Odessa can pull in more business, and he can spend more time in the shop. He said his wife hopes that too.
“My wife thinks I’m beating my body up to death and she’s been asking me to do something — either leave that or close this.”
The couple have a blended family with three adult children and a home in Revere.
As for whether he thinks any of his kids will get into the cobbling business with him, Glover said his son has been toying with the idea of helping his dad fix shoes.
“He works in a hospital, but he wants to do something else. So he called me this morning and he said, Dad, would you mind if I work in the shop with you?”
Glover, smiling, recalls days gone by with a son shorter than the counter, helping him out and learning the art of cobbling. He points to a mismatched pair of shoes — one a woman’s one a man’s at the front of the store that he said his son fixed years back.
“If you can do that you can do anything,” Glover said.
Regardless of having an apprentice in the office, the almost 60-year-old said he hopes he can continue to cobble for years to come.
“I wouldn’t want to do anything else. I will do this until the day I die.”
Odessa Instant Shoe Repair is open five days a week at 27 Court Square in Boston.