Footwear repair and retail whizzes Jessica Roth and Stephanee Oberhauser are part of a four-generation family tradition at Palo Alto’s The Cobblery.
THE COBBLERY’S JESSICA Roth and Stephanee Oberhauser are a rare breed in more ways than one. For starters, the sisters are expert cobblers, members of a small minority of women plying a craft long dominated by men—a craft many call a vanishing art. They were also the fourth generation to join what has become a family affair: Helping to run The European Cobblery, a trio of successful independent footwear repair and retail shops in northern California. This past winter, the pair branched out by purchasing the Palo Alto store from their parents, shortening its name to The Cobblery and infusing it with fresh, new brands and a stronger social media presence.
The footwear business seems to run in their blood. Though Roth and Oberhauser once envisioned different careers, both found themselves drawn to cobblery and to the footwear industry. Their passion for their work was contagious: Both women’s husbands now help run The Cobblery and their four children, aged 11 to 17, pitch in on everything from computer work to helping out on the floor.
Putting Down Roots
Their great grandfather, Gabriel Oller, Sr., would undoubtedly be proud. Oller opened the first European Cobblery in Palo Alto in 1940 in a small storefront down the street from the shop’s current location after retiring from the local police department. “He had spent the first part of his life in his village in Mexico doing leatherwork and he was very artistic, like a lot of people in our family, so teaching himself shoe repair was a natural fit for him,” Roth explains. “He became a real craftsman.”
“We grew up in the store,” says Oberhauser. “We had a little playroom in the back and we’d put away shoelaces or make doll shoes, anything to keep us busy and out of our parents’ way.”He passed his knowledge along to his son, Gabriel Oller, Jr., who in turn passed it on to his daughter and her husband, Desiree and Paul Roth, parents of Stephanee, Jessica and their younger sister. For decades, The European Cobblery focused exclusively on shoe repair, expanding to locations in Los Altos and Campbell and becoming the go-to name for Bay Area residents who needed a strap mended or a sole replaced.
All those stitchers, sanders and stretchers in the workshop piqued Roth’s interest at a young age, and she began to learn repair techniques watching her parents work. There was a certain magic in being able to make a worn but treasured item beautiful again with paint, dye, stitching and other secrets of the trade. And when the family decided to start selling shoes as well as repairing them, she was hooked.
“Fashion and design were always a really big part of my life,” Roth explains. “I wanted to go to design school, but we started to bring in the retail aspect of the business in the mid ’90s, and I realized I could come into this business and offer something new and valuable in terms of buying and merchandising.”
Oberhauser followed, learning cobblery from her sister and discovering that custom work was both challenging and rewarding from a creative standpoint. “People often come in with unusual repair needs and we have to figure out how to meet them, which keeps our work very interesting, ” she says. The twosome handles 100 percent of the refurbishments at the Palo Alto store. “Sometimes people who come here for the first time are surprised to see women cobblers,” says Roth, “but after they talk to us they tend to feel even safer leaving their things with us than they might with a man because they realize that we love and appreciate beautiful things. We want to make them look as nice as possible out of respect for the items themselves.”
A Recession-Proof Model
Today, The Cobblery’s business is divided almost evenly between retail and repair. Of the 1,500-square-foot shop, 800 square feet is devoted to the workroom and 700 to the retail showroom and stockroom. This split has proven a smart strategy when it comes to recession-proofing, notes Roth. “Repair usually goes up in a down economy, while retail goes up in an up economy,” she explains. “The two help to balance each other out during slow times and good times and make our business more well rounded.”
It’s a model any footwear retailer would do well to consider to safeguard against slow times. Roth also encourages retailers to get to know qualified local cobblers and understand their capabilities. That way, for instance, if a customer falls in love with shoes that don’t quite fit, a retailer can recommend an expert to stretch them, widen them or create a tighter fit and still make the sale. “Lots of people don’t realize how many things can be altered, so it’s important to be knowledgeable as a retailer so you can explain the options to your clients,” says Oberhauser.
Repair costs at The Cobblery range from $16.95 for a pair of dowel heel replacements for stilettos to $125 to resole a pair of men’s leather shoes. “We see a lot of Jimmy Choos, Manolo Blahniks and Christian Louboutins,” Oberhauser says. The same is true of handbags. “One of our customers’ favorite repairs is cleaning, painting and refinishing their high-end handbags,” she notes. “We do a lot of Gucci and Louboutin bags. We’re located in an affluent area where people have nice things and want to keep them, which works to our advantage.” But Oberhauser says the store attracts customers from all over the Bay Area, like the woman who wants to touch up a trusty tote or her great-grandmother’s vintage purse.
“We do a lot of calf adjustments in boots too,” Roth adds. “Not every woman has the same size calf, which means they often need boots to be made smaller or bigger. We can tailor the width to their leg or take down the height of boots to fit them better,” a service Roth says is utilized by high-end area stores like the Stanford Market Center’s Tory Burch location, which sends the sisters boots to alter often. “We’re trying to get the word out even more,” continues Roth. “Often it’s just a matter of going in, introducing ourselves, talking to people and leaving them our business cards.”
In recent years, Roth and Oberhauser have also delved into orthopedic adjustments, tweaking footwear to make walking easier and less painful for clients with foot and leg problems. “We’re very creative in making shoes look and feel better if, for example, a woman needs a lift in one shoe,” says Oberhauser. “One of our goals right now is to reach doctors and teach them what we can do, so they can tell their patients how we might be able to help them.”
Changing with the Times
Like the repair work, the retail side of The Cobblery’s business demands continual tweaks and innovations. “We’re smack dab in the middle of the Silicon Valley tech boom,” says Roth. “Facebook’s original location was two blocks from our store. AOL and Google are nearby. That means we’ve seen a lot of change in the last 15 years, and even more in the last five. We’ve had to rethink our retail a lot as our clientele has changed.”
The store’s first brand was the Troentorp clog, augmented quickly with Naot, Haflinger and Dansko to meet the needs of comfort-minded customers. However, with the tech boom, The Cobblery’s clientele has become younger and ever more fashion-forward. “Comfort is still important to us because we live in an area where the lifestyle is casual and people do a lot of walking in parks. But we’ve had to change things up to make our selection more fun and fresh in our stores,” says Oberhauser. “We went from selling a lot of Dansko to selling more Camper, for instance.”
Now, The Cobblery is home to unique brands and styles that aren’t available in every store. For example, Roth says, “The best new brand we’ve come across in years is Jafa. They’re fun and a little bit funky but still comfortable enough to wear all day. Plus, they have very limited U.S. distribution, which we appreciate from a brand because it means we don’t have to compete with online competitors and stores in every city.”
It also helps prevent showrooming, they say. “Being in a tech-savvy area, we definitely get people coming in looking around and then looking at their smart phones,” Roth notes. “We know they’re trying to see if they can get our styles online cheaper. That’s why we like special finds and handmade stuff. People have to get it here.”
The store carries approximately 40 brands of footwear, ranging in price from $25 flip-flops to $250 comfort sandals. The average hovers around $80. “We spend a lot of time finding just the right things,” says Oberhauser. “We shop trade shows and we window shop a lot. We try to find things that would appeal to us as customers.” And, being a repair shop, serves as another form of window shopping. “When a shoe we like comes in for repair, we’ll research it to decide whether we might want to carry it,” Oberhauser says. “We also make a point to carry local designers, like Sally Spicer, who makes upholstery fabric bags out of San Francisco.”
“We want people to be able to come into our store and find a shoe that’s unique, comfortable and that they feel looks great,” Roth explains. “It’s also got to be well-made because we know if it falls apart, we’re going to have to fix it!”
Though the emphasis is on women’s shoes, The Cobblery also carries a limited selection of men’s and children’s footwear. “We have Crocs for toddlers, Toms and Ugg for the middle school and high school crowd, and we try to have the perfect men’s closet,” says Roth. “We offer him a sneaker, a flip-flop and a casual work shoe. We also have lots of slippers, a few ties, fedoras and funky socks for men.”
Speaking of socks, one of The Cobblery’s distinctive features is its sock wall. “We have a giant wall of socks and we’re very particular with our buying,” Roth says. “We’re known in fall and winter for having a great sock selection, and our holiday season is based on our sock sales.” The focus on socks, which helps infuse the store with bright, vibrant hues, led to a pleasant realization following a recent interior makeover. “The designer turned everything in our store white,” Roth explains. “I started to have a panic attack when I saw it. Then she explained that the white background would help people see the colorful merchandise better. It turned out, she was right.” Roth adds, “We’re not afraid of color here. We love it.”
Roth and Oberhauser also get input from their children, who sometimes help guide buying decisions by sharing insights about what brands and styles are hot among their peers. The pair is also tapping into younger consumers by launching a new website and putting a concerted effort into growing their store’s social media presence through Instagram and Facebook. “Our kids tend to be very proud about being involved in the business,” says Oberhauser. “If they decide this is what they’d like to do, fine. But we’re encouraging them to find their own career paths. We’re pretty young ourselves and we feel very fortunate to be the fourth generation in this business. We know it’s not something that happens every day, and we plan to be doing this for a long time.”