by David Kramer
(originally published in, Talker of the Town)
Al’s Monroe Shoe Repair, 985 Monroe Avenue, 12/28/21. Except where indicated, photos by David Kramer] Mario Gagliardi, proprietor of Al’s Monroe Shoe Services, began repairing shoes in 1951 when he was twelve, living near Naples, Italy. In 1964, Mario moved to Rochester, continuing as a cobbler for seven years before taking a job at Eastman Kodak. In 2013, Mario, a cobbler at heart, came out of retirement to take over Al’s. For decades the store was owned by Al Riolo, who came to the United States from Italy in 1947 and was in the shoe repair business ever since. Al, who died in 2014, was Mario’s mentor and good friend. Walking into Al’s is like going back into time. Mario’s works with leather as much as possible so the store is permeated by that mildly earthy or burnt aroma hinting of a men’s cologne, one you don’t smell very often. As Mario accepts cash only, there is no electronic register nor a computer. But there are the machines.
From Al, Mario inherited three repair and polishing machines that are at least 90 years old. But each works as well now as when newly minted in the 1930s.
Al’s reminds me of a mostly gone era when Italian-American shoe repair stores dotted the city. (See The Austrian cannon is back in Washington Square Park and some Italian Rochester history.) The other day I was walking on Monroe Avenue after a lightish snowfall. Wearing my winter boots for the first time, I noticed the laces kept unravelling. I passed Al’s, thinkings Mario could help. He could. Mario determined the laces were way too long. First, he had to cut off the old laces and then put in a better fitting laces using a special tool. Upon more closely inspecting the boot, Mario saw porous holes that left my feet drenched. The boots were not winter worthy. At that point, Mario asked what size were the boots. Although the tag was hard to read, we determined 8 1/2. Mario went into the back and returned with a fine pair of 8 1/2 boots. In 2019, a man had ordered and paid for a repair. The man never returned. Mario called 4 – 5 times as marked on the work order. The man still never returned. Mario is only responsible for left merchandise for 20 days, but he kept the boots for over 2 years. Deciding the man would never return, Mario gave me the boots.
First, Mario cannibalized the heal pads from my boots, drying the wet one on his radiator. The right boot did not quite fit so Mario stretched it out with a shoehorn. As we waited, Mario spotted some birds on the sidewalk and promptly fed them. Fortunately, I was able to somewhat pay back Mario’s kindness — to me and the birds — by giving him the old boots whose buckles he could re-use. Then I asked Mario if anyone on Monroe sold gloves. My pair was flawed in that both were for the right hand; hence one had to be worn backwards. He didn’t think so, but mentioned he had bought 5 or 6 pairs at the Dollar Store. He had one pair in his pocket that he offered to me for free. So, I walked into Al’s Monroe Shoe Repair wearing two right-handed gloves with soggy boots whose laces were too long. I left with a pair of sharp leather boots and a pair of gloves: one right-handed and one left-handed. On the day I returned to take photos, I brought another pair of boots whose laces were long.
Mario cut and shortened the laces, then used a heat gun to tighten the frayed ends. Mario thought he could improve the water resistance of the boots with some gluing. Tagging the boots, Mario said I should come back Friday. Typically, Mario said he would not charge me, though I offered. But don’t take my word for it. As seen in various yelp reviews of Al’s Monroe Shoe Service (Tue – Sat 9am – 5pm), Mario is considered a local treasure, praised for his craftsmanship, honesty, gentlemanliness, integrity, timeliness and very reasonable prices. One reviewer calls Mario a perfectionist, meticulous in his “magnificent” work.
One reviewer says Mario is an artist, a viewpoint echoed by another customer who describes Mario as “a Rembrandt with a needle!” The man had brought Mario 34 year-old bison leather boat shoes, rotting in four places, faded, stiff, and weathered from neglect. In less than 48 hours, Mario “turned hardened gristle into filet mignon! And he did so for a measly $25.” Womply has 88 more reviews all of which give five stars. POSTSCRIPT Al’s is next to Los’s Epic Cuts. For more on the barbershops of Upper Monroe, see Seriously, where can I get a shave and hair cut? And the nine barbershops on Upper Monroe Avenue
David Kramer is a published author, poet and journalist. He is a professor of English at Keuka College and runs the online magazine, Talker of the Town.