Shop which fixed shoes of shipyard workers, miners and SAFC players turns 100
A Sunderland footwear institution is celebrating 100 years in the trade.
Smiths Shoe Service was opened on Silksworth Row in October 1919 by Frank Smith. His brother Ira Smith joined shortly afterwards. The business has always sold and repaired shoes and other leather goods.
In 1956 they took on 17 year-old Alan Humphrey, who has been there ever since. Frank died aged 62 in 1956. Alan, now 80, takes up the story.
He said: “Ira approached me soon after I left school to say that if I came into the business then one day it would be mine.
“Frank was like another father to me. He would be absolutely delighted if he’d known we were still running the business now.”
New owner and the move to Sea Road
Ira died suddenly in the early 1960s. Then, as promised, Alan became the new owner. In 1983 Smiths moved from Silksworth Row to 17 Sea Road in Fulwell. It has remained there ever since.
Alan said: “I learned the repair side. When I started I was cutting pieces of leather for the home shoe repairs.
“Industrial work boots were big business. We sold thousands of pairs of clogs to industry; all leather soles and hob nails. There were no rubber souls”
The business has endured economic uncertainty over 100 years; both locally and globally.
Alan recalls: “We lost out when the NCB provided miners with boots. It was the same with the shipyards. Our biggest customer was Pyrex and they closed down.”
Other customers over the years have included Vaux Breweries and Sunderland AFC.
Alan added: “Every Saturday morning we would sell on average a gross of studs for football boots.”
It’s all about the customer
Alan, born and bred in Fulwell, married Joan in 1965. He is still involved with the business, but it’s mainly run now by their son Ian, 49. He uses the same skills that Frank Smith learned.
Ian joined straight from Monkwearmouth School in 1987. Younger son Peter, 46, runs his own business in another industry.
Father and son say customer service it central to the business’ success.
Alan explained: “I’ve talked myself out of many sales. If I believe it’s not the right shoe for the customer, I’ll tell them. You might lose the sale today, but you’ll always get it in the future.
“If customers say ‘I’m just browsing’ – walk away. Never stand over a customer.
“Be friendly with the customer. I’ve seen many children born who are now grandparents and they still come to us.”
There are no mine, shipping or glass industries for Smiths to serve these days. Football boots are all but disposable.
But their care and specialised service still draws customers from across the North East. The shoe stretching service, making shoes wider and more comfortable, is perennially popular.
Ian said: “The business hasn’t changed an awful lot. We introduced key cutting in about 1990. Apart from that and a few new materials, it’s the same trade. We repair shoes the same way we ever did.”
Ian probably has a job for life. The skills passed down over a century are as useful as ever, but nobody is learning them.
Alan said: “There are no new repairers coming into the trade.”
Smiths Shoe Service has some way to go yet.