Cobblers for Three Generations

Written by Teresa Dennard.

Bobby Reed doing what he loves to do

When John Howell began his shoe repair business in 1927, most people owned only one pair of shoes. When the shoes became worn, rather than purchase new ones, they were taken to the local cobbler to be stitched or resoled. Howell ran his repair shop from the east side of the downtown square and made it a family affair. With four children, all but the youngest daughter worked in the store and learned the trade.

Saturday was a big business day and the store was open from daylight to dark. During the Depression years, times were hard for everyone, but Howell managed to keep his store open. He came from a family of 11 children and his wife, Vesta (Rhiddlehoover), came from a family of 11 children. Some of the relatives said there were times they wouldn’t have eaten if it had not been for John Howell. By the 1940s, the oil boom had hit and Howell had seven employees to keep up with all the business. In the 1950s, the store was moved to Holly Street by what was then the new high school. He expanded his business to include guns and leather goods.

When John became ill and was no longer able to work, Vesta opened a café in the shop. Students from the high school were able to leave campus to eat, so they went to Howell’s every day for lunch. Joe, Howell’s youngest son, who had worked for his father all through high school, apprenticed for four years with Sam DeGeorge, one of the best shoe repair stores in Houston. He returned to Carthage to take over his father’s business and eventually moved the shoe repair to Longview.

It was then that young Bobby Reed began working for his Uncle Joe, quickly learning the trade that had been in the family for years. “He’d meet my mom in Tatum and pick me up to work on Saturdays. I’d help him get caught up and it gave me a feel for the business.” By the time Bobby graduated from high school in 1989, Uncle Joe convinced him to come to work full time. “He told me ‘it’s in your history; it’s in your blood and I’d like for you to carry it on.”  As a third generation cobbler, Bobby knew he was making the right decision.

An opportunity arose for Bobby to return to Carthage to do shoe repair. A cousin, Jim Rhiddlehoover opened Jim’s Boot and Shoes and invited Bobby to do the shoe repair in his store on West Sabine Street. (Jim’s daddy and Bobby’s grandmother, Vesta, are brother and sister.) He stepped in and has been going strong ever since. “If you do what you love to do,” says Bobby, “you never have to work a day in your life. Being a 3rd generation businessman is kind of a rare thing nowadays. How many people can say they’re doing the same kind of work as their granddaddy?”

Most of Bobby’s work is repairing boots, and the Speedmaster machine he uses is the same type machine his grandfather used. “Living in East Texas, I’d say 90% of what I repair is a person’s dress boots. That’s what keeps me in business. People here wear nice dress boots that can cost $600 or more and they’ll bring them in for new half-soles and heels and be good to go again. I’ve had customers come in with boots that you can see all the way through them or they’ll have cardboard and some duct tape wrapped around them to make them last a few more miles. I always say in the summer it’s flip flops and tennis shoes and everybody’s gone on vacation. In the winter, nobody likes cold, wet feet, so I’m always busier then. On the average I get 65-75 items a week, and that’s just through the Grace of God. I believe that because you can’t explain it any other way. I look at it as a blessing that I just fell into a spot where I could make a good living.”

After Jim Rhiddlehoover retired, Bobby moved his shoe repair to his shop and began depending more on his pick-up business. He travels weekly to Henderson, Nacogdoches and Center to pick up shoes that need repair, plus he has two pickups a week at Lone Star Outfitters, which is in the same building as his original shop. Bobby can stitch and fix just about anything. “If everybody knew what I could fix, I’d stay a lot busier. I’ve put handles back on luggage, I’ve fixed a lot of ladies purses when the strap breaks, I’ve fixed zippers that won’t zip, I’ve done build-ups for people in need of that, I’ve fixed the heels on ladies shoes, and I can even fix broken flip flops. Probably the most unusual repair I’ve done is on a baby doll. I had a lady who had a doll that the arm came off and I sewed it back on.”

There was a time when business was slow enough that Bobby decided to work two jobs, but that didn’t last long. Wife Brandi worked at First State Bank and decided to stay home with the kids. “What got my attention was when I’d come home and the kids would ask me to go outside and play with them. I’d have to tell them, no, I’ve got to work. I realized you can’t go to the bank and swipe that debit card and say I want to buy two more weeks with my kids. We knew something had to change. When the kids were in school, Brandi was bored, so we prayed about it and came to the conclusion that she’d go back to the bank and I’d go back to fixing shoes. That’s what I love doing anyway. Spending time with our kids Baylee and Baylor, is a priority. We like going camping, playing games and doing normal family stuff. We go to church at Cedar Grove and help with the youth on Wednesday nights. Spending time with our kids is not for sale.” 

“If either one of the kids ever wants to learn the trade, I’ll show them, but I’m not going to force it on them just to make a 4th generation in the business. I’ve told them, they’re smart and I want them to go to school and get a degree, and if one day they get out there needing something to do, I’ve got a trade I can teach them. When you have your own business, you have to rely more on your faith than anything. There are times when you wonder how you’re going to make it, but the Good Lord takes care of it and I give Him all the credit. He has taken care of me and worked it all out when I didn’t know I could. He has really blessed me.”