Sunderland cobbler celebrates 50 years in business as one of city's longest running shops
They’ve witnessed the fall of the shipyards, the miners’ strike, the three-day week and now a pandemic – but the city centre’s longest-running cobblers is still going strong after fifty years of keeping Mackems well heeled.
John and Jean Hibbert opened their Wear U Well While U Wait store on August 22, 1971 in Borough Road and have witnessed the changing face of the city centre from their shop window, whilst all the while staying true to their ethos of providing good, honest service.
A true craftsman, John began learning his trade at the age of just 15 working at Lennards shoe repair shop near the train station, before working at the Co-Op in Silksworth where he met Jean whom he married in 1967.
He honed his skills for giving new life to old shoes over the years, which led to him opening his first shop when he was just 23.
To this day, he still uses some of his original tools including a knife block he’s had since he was 15, lasts which date back to the 1930s when the shop was first opened for shoe repairs, and a Singer sewing machine which is over 100 years old – and still works perfectly.
Over the decades little has changed at his Borough Road shop, which he took over from another cobbler, but it’s this reliability that has kept his customers coming back.
Today aged 73, John repairs the shoes for a fourth generation of Sunderland families, as well as offering a key cutting service, as is one of the longest running shops in the city. He says that it’s his loyal customers that have kept the business going through the difficult days.
"It’s the customers that have kept us here,” explained John, who lives in Ryhope with Jean. “When we took on the business a lot of our customers were older and we’re now serving their grandchildren and great grandchildren. I’ve always ran the business on trust and honesty. If people come in with a pair of shoes that aren’t worth saving I’ll say so, and they appreciate that honesty.”
John, a dad-of-four, grandfather-of-10 and great-grandfather of five, has seen many changes over the years, from the 1970s when the bulk of his work was repairing the workmen’s boots of the shipyards to today where he mostly re-heels fashion shoes, from quality men’s leather shoes to Vivienne Westwood stilettos.
The city too has had many shifts over the years, with retail now more centred around the other end of the city centre.
He said: "Back then we were at the busy end of town, there was the tax office, Jackson the tailors and Camrex paint place and we would pick up a lot of trade from people passing. It was much busier than it is now, but people still know we’re here. I spend half my day waving at people on the buses as they pass who I’ve known for donkey’s years.”
It was this interaction with his customers which John missed most during the pandemic, and he says he often felt compelled to pop down to the shop during the lockdowns to wave out of the window.
The shop is now back open six days a week and John says he hopes people will still remember them.