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Seattle Post-Intelligencer


Sunday February 6, 1983


" Novice Cobblers Learn the Old Ways "


By: Don Carter

PORT TOWNSEND - Five people have come here from far corners of the country to revive an ancient craft, one that nearly a century ago fell victim to the machine age.

The five are learning how to make shoes, by hand.

Each of them paid a little more than $3,000 to come to this old Army barracks at Port Townsend's historic Fort Flagler for an intensive month-long workshop on Shoemaking.

The five who responded to Cosmopolis Shoemaker Alan Zerobnick's ad in Mother Earth News have a variety of somewhat different visions with a common theme: Independence.

Cliff Stout, 48, is a computer operator for one of the major oil companies. He flew here from New Jersey because his company is cutting back the payroll, "and also this seemed to be a good way to slip into retirement... it's not physically demanding and I could do it long after normal retirement age."


The oldest novice Shoemaker, Arlen Johnson, came from Anchorage. Now 51, Johnson says he's been barbering at an army base for 22 years "cutting 40 or 50 heads a day." He'd like to open a small barber shop in the city, and was attracted to Shoemaking "because I've been looking for something to do in the downtime, and I've had my fill of reading."

Gigi Hay, 29, is the only student from Washington State. She lives in Ashford, spends 5 months a year working on trails in Mount Rainier National Park, and says she needs "something to do the other 7 months... and I definitely want to be my own boss; that's kind of a dream of mine."

It is a dream of Independence, and definitely not one of wealth.

"I try not to paint anybody a rosy picture," says Shoemaker-turned-teacher Zerobnick, 36, whose bushy beard, long braided hair, and laid back manner make a statement of values about wealth and independence. "I tell them that if you start right now, and work as fast as you can for the rest of your life you can't begin to fill up one Kinney's Shoe Store. I tell them to think small and stay small."


For a Shoemaker, Zerobnick explains, a good week's production is 3 pairs a week. Using Zerobnick's figures, 3 pairs a week sold for $125 to $175 a pair means a gross of $18,750 to $26,250 less materials cost of $7,500 to $9,000. That nets an annual income of $11,250 to $17,250.

But that's enough to survive outside "The Rat Race", which Zerobnick says he left some years ago. The Colorado born man worked in television and marketing. He started and operated a backpacking equipment company, but "packed it up" in 1976 to head West. He made his first pair of shoes - for - himself and began to make others for friends who admired his efforts.

To learn the Craft, he read about it, did it, and consulted with some of the few remaining Shoemakers "who now are in their 70's and 80's" and with younger Orthopedic Shoemakers.


Zerobnick says he's turned out about 400 pairs since then, working in the cabin he built near Cosmopolis. Since he has no electricity his only power tool is a treadle-operated sewing machine designed for leather work; in the beginning he used only hand tools, but discovered the $1,500 sewing machine was necessary for survival.

All of the hand tools, as well as books and enough leather for about 15 to 20 pairs of shoes are included in the $3,000 the students pay for the "Tenderfoot Workshop". The package also includes rooms in the old Army buildings, as well as board, gourmet natural-foods faire prepared by Olympia caterer David O'Hanesian. Three weeks into the workshop, enthusiasm still seams running high among the students. Several of them mentioned "the high group energy level" that keeps them at the leather cutting boards and sewing machines until 11 or 11:30 every night.


"Those two boys are strictly the greatest," says student Stout of teachers Zerobnick and John Cushman, a Shoemaker from Yachats, Oregon. Cushman's a former Wisconsin Landscape Architect who "came out for a 2 month vacation and stayed for 2 years."

With her classmates, Hay has advanced in the curriculum through making her first pair of sandals, then moccasins, shoes and boots. She is wearing the pair of boots she just completed and pronounces them "the most comfortable footwear I have ever had."

And it is comfort, beams Zerobnick, that creates a market for handmade shoes selling for $100 and up.

One of the main problems of factory-made shoes, he complains, is that the "lasts" (forms from which shoes are fashioned) are made in standard sizes and that "the average human doesn't have standard feet." The front part of the foot may be wider than standard, the heel narrower, or the arch positioned differently. "Look around you on the street someday," he says, hunching forward and making an excruciating face, "and you'll see a lot of people like that (who need custom shoes)."

Another problem with factory-made shoes, he says "is that most of them are disposable." It's a matter of economics, he continues, "that they keep looking at how they can save a nickel on each of a million shoes..."


So on one of the workshop tables, there's a number of shoes that have been dissected to show assorted sins: glue used where stitching is necessary, single stitching instead of double, fake leather, plastic heels made to look like stacked leather, cardboard innersoles and more.

"Some of the first shoes I made are still on the road after 7 years," he says proudly.

"While Shoemaking is still the same Ancient Art it always was," Zerobnick concedes he's made a few concessions to modern technology. One of them is the "goop" sole, made of shredded auto tires and cement for extra cushioning. "Man was never intended to walk or stand on concrete all day," he frowns.

The students learn how to make traditional leather soles, of course, along with many other skills. They learn how to make custom fit lasts, a process in which the foot is set in plaster to make a mold from which the wooden shoe pattern is eventually fashioned. A variety of experts, most of them drawn from the Seattle area come on weekends for seminars on such subjects as Foot Massage, Orthopedic Shoes, Podiatry, Orthotics and Shoe Repair.

Video tapes are made of the seminars, so students may review them at their leisure.

He plans 3 other seminars this year, in March, October and November. His "ultimate fantasy" is to establish a Vocational School for Shoemakers.

Wouldn't that create a lot of competition?

"Not really," he responds. "If I have 4 classes a year with 10 students in each of them, that's only 40 a year, less than one per state." Although some cities, such as Seattle, have several Orthopedic Shoemakers who'll custom-craft shoes for problem cases, Zerobnick he's discovered many other cities have none.


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