January 18, 2023

All in a Day’s Work — Luigi Prete of Luigi’s Shoe Repair: “A Little Bit of Patience and A Lot of Skill”

By Donald Gilpin

Luigi Prete

For the past 32 years, Luigi Prete has presided at Luigi’s Shoe Repair, his 600-square-foot domain behind a storefront in the Montgomery Shopping Center. Thousands of soles and heels, many miles of stitching, and acres of polishing and stretching, sometimes pocketbooks or belts, sometimes zippers — for 10 hours a day, six days a week he’s been welcoming a wide variety of customers with their shoes and leather goods.

“I like my job,” said Prete, who had already been in the shoe repair business for 23 years, first working for his uncle in the Princeton Shopping Center, then in his own shop in Twin Rivers, before coming to his present location. “If you don’t like what you’re doing, don’t do it. I’ve been doing it for 55 years, and it’s the only thing I know how to do.”

He continued, “I’m relaxed when I come over here. You know why? I deal with the customers. I’ve seen most of them before. I talk to the customers. Time goes by. I’m busy.”

When he’s not interacting with customers in the front of his compact store, with its counter and shelves covered with shoe boxes and shoe polish and a wall of family photos, he’s operating the stretching, or sewing, or trimming, or polishing, or finishing, or nailing machines in the workroom behind.

“I do whatever comes first, whenever I get a chance,” he explained. “You know, the shoes for Monday or Tuesday first. You’ve got to break it up. I don’t want to be working on work that has to be done for next week and get behind on work that needs to be done for tomorrow. You’ve got to stay on top of things.”

The pace of activity and the challenges of the job vary greatly at Luigi’s. “It’s not a heavy duty job,” he said. “Shoes don’t weigh too much, but you’ve got to know what to do. You’ve got to know how to operate the machines. You’ve got to know how to put on the soles and the heels. And you’ve got to know when to put the glue on and how to finish them up. You have to have a little bit of patience and a lot of skill.”

He pointed out a couple of demanding jobs. “People think, ‘He’s got to know what he’s doing,’ so they bring in stuff — like I just got a pair of dancing shoes. I have to put the rubber sole on. You’ve got to know how to do it. And there are some $300 shoes here. I don’t want to mess that up. And stuff like this new sole. It has to be the right length, the right color.”

Prete was born in Italy and moved with his parents to Germany in 1963 when he was 15. For the next five years he worked in a Mercedes-Benz factory in Germany — in the company office for two years until he was old enough to work at a higher-paying job on the production line.

In 1968 he came to the United States to live and work with his uncle Pat Romano, who owned Center Shoe Repair in the Princeton Shopping Center. “At first I didn’t want to look at shoes,” Prete said. I applied for work at General Motors on Olden Avenue. I had worked at Mercedes-Benz in Germany, but if you don’t speak English you don’t go too far. My uncle was happy that I stayed with him. Whatever he was doing, I worked with him, and I learned the trade. That’s the way I started in the shoe repair business. I had no intention to become a shoe repair guy. I had no other choice, so I learned the trade.”

During the next three years he worked for his uncle before opening his own shoe repair in Twin Rivers, which he ran for about 20 years. Soon after he arrived in the U.S. Prete met a girl who lived just across the street from the Princeton Shopping Center. In 1971 they got married, and 52 years later they’re still together, living in Princeton near the shopping center. They have a son and three grandchildren.

Prete reflected on his 55 years in the shoe repair business. “You know, you keep doing it,” he said. “You bring the family up and you make a living. You don’t make millions at this business.”

He described a business in decline. “It’s a dying art,” he said, noting how many area shoe repair shops had shut down over the past 20 years. “The shoe repair business is not the way it used to be. People used to get dressed up. They put on a nice pair of shoes to go to the office. First of all, people don’t do that anymore. Second of all, they work from home. And third, there are too many cheap shoes.”

He explained the problem with shoes that are not worth the trouble to repair. “When somebody comes in, I tell them the truth: ‘Look, these shoes are not worth being repaired. Get rid of them and get a new pair of shoes. You’ll be better off.’ But a lot of people say, ‘Oh, they’re so comfortable.’ They get upset when you tell them the truth, so what are you going to do? I tell them anyway, and then it’s up to them what they want to do.”

He continued, “It makes sense to pay a higher price for a good pair of shoes. You pay a little bit more, but it’s worth it. Today, to put on new soles and heels will cost you 60-65 bucks. These shoes aren’t worth it. Go out and buy a new pair and buy something a little bit better. But if you insist, it’s your money. Do whatever you want. And at least I’m honest. I can go to bed and not worry about it.”

Prete has many customers who have been bringing shoes to him regularly over the years since he started in Montgomery, and a lot of new customers too from the new homes being built and others who have moved into the area.

“This is like a family operation after 32 years,” he said. “Some have passed away, but there are a lot of longtime customers.” He showed me $10 worth of lottery tickets that had been given to him by one of those grateful longtime customers just before I came in.

Outside of work, there’s not much spare time for Prete, but family is the center of his life: shopping with his wife, watching the grandchildren play baseball or hockey, or just getting together in the backyard on Grover Avenue.

Succession or retirement at Luigi’s Shoe Repair? Not in the foreseeable future. “How long am I going to keep on doing this?” he wondered. “As long as God keeps me here.”