Cobbler to the city's leaders calls it quits

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Owner Wan Song of Superior Shoe Repair, 138 S. 15th Street which is closing today, Dec. 31, 2014, after 32 years. ( DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer )

The going-out-of-business sign unnerved Rob Hamilton as he swung open the door to Superior Shoe Repair at midmorning Tuesday with two pairs of size 12s in hand - one black, one deep brown.

"What's happening?" he asked Greg Kent, the shoe-shine man at the Center City shop.

"Somebody bought the building," Kent replied.

Superior, on 15th Street above Walnut, is the kind of place patronized by pols and plebeians, a shop so trusted that some customers cross state lines to have their shoes resoled and shined there - and have for decades.

But times change, and Wednesday evening, Won Song will lock up for the final time. The store he has rented for 32 years has been sold, and he was given notice to vacate.

"I'm so sad," Song said.

In 1976, Song came to Philadelphia from South Korea, where he had worked in his father's rice mill. Song needed a new line of work. He found his way to Center City, trained with the Italian shoemakers who owned Superior, then a year later took over the place himself.

"I learned here," he said Tuesday at the counter of his nearly bare shop. All that remained were some dusty shelves, the shoe-shine equipment, and about 40 pairs of footwear that customers had not yet picked up.

Superior's location - close to City Hall and Rittenhouse Square - meant the shop attracted lots of office workers, people who wear nice shoes. But Song's reputation for fixing shoes, belts, and bags meant that people came back.

"When I fixed the shoes and they came out so nice, I'm so proud. It's like an artist," said Song, a slender man of 69 with graying dark hair, glasses, and a loose blue apron tied around his neck. "If it didn't come out nice, I can't sleep."

Superior also did a steady business in shoe shines, thanks in large part to Greg Kent, who has been working for Song for as long as he's owned the shop.

"I ran into him on the street," Kent said. "I was looking for another job, and he asked me, 'Can you shine shoes?' "

Kent said he could. He had never shined a shoe in his life.

Luckily, Kent took to the work, and to Song.

"A lot of people call him my son," Song said of Kent, 53.

Kent shined Ed Rendell's shoes for his inauguration, he said. He has polished Mayor Nutter's footwear, and even shined for "the guy who lost the election for governor," he said.

Gov. Corbett?

"Yes, that's him," Kent said. "He was nice, really nice."

On Tuesday, a steady stream of customers and friends passed through the glass door to pick up final repairs, have one last shine or say goodbye.

"Not a lot of business these days, but I promised the customers I would be here," Song said, motioning to the rows of unclaimed shoes slipped into brown paper bags.

Hamilton, who brought his two pairs of shoes to be shined in boxes, said he has been a regular for years and doesn't mind crossing the bridge from Voorhees, where he works and lives.

"I ride by six shoe shine places to come here," said Hamilton. "This is the best, hands down."

A man came by just to give Song a handshake, then a hug.

"You're a real gentleman," he told Song. "It's been an honor knowing you - I wish you the best of luck."

Sometimes, the man said, he stopped into Superior just "to say hello, to get advice. He's like a bartender."

Many customers have tried to get Song to find another location, but he hasn't had any luck, he said. So for now he's calling himself retired.

He'll spend time at home in Eagleville, golfing and hiking. He'll see more of his wife, a retired nurse, and his grandchildren, who are 3 and 5. Superior was open from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. five days a week, and there wasn't much room for other things.

But he was not willing to say never again, Song said. He still likes the way the tools feel in his hands, and he can still size up the way people walk with one glance at their shoes.

"Maybe this isn't forever," he said.

Superior's closing means a new chapter for Kent. As of Jan. 10, he'll be a small-business owner himself. He is moving to Distante Clothing, a high-end menswear shop at 1510 Sansom St., where he will shine shoes.

In the same way the Italian shoemakers gave Song the knowledge of their craftsmanship, Song is helping Kent on his way out. He has given Kent all his equipment - polish, brushes and cloths - even the large, three-seat stand he used for so many years at Superior.

"He's started me off real good," Kent said, then went back to his work. Another customer had come in, and for at least another day, there were shoes to shine.

 


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