Dave Vallee has gotten a lot of foot traffic through his Downtown Rockville business over the past nearly 34 years.
As owner and sole employee of Dave's Cobbler Shoppe, at 19 West Main St., he's been repairing shoes, boots, purses, and other specialty items for his entire adult life, maintaining a lost art in what has long become a throw-away society.
And he wouldn't have it any other way.
Repairing shoes is a family affair for Vallee. After serving in WWII, his father returned to Bristol, Connecticut and apprenticed as a cobbler, eventually opening his own shop, Vallee Shoe Service. For a time, he also operated another shop in Bloomfield. Dave's brother, Mike, still runs the Bristol store today. His older brother, Joe, Jr., owns a cobbler shop in Sarasota, Florida.
"At first, I worked in my father's shop in Bristol with my brothers," he said. "This was until I was about 25 or 26, but there were too many of us. So I started talking to some of our material suppliers about shops for sale and one of them told me about a place in Rockville. The first thing out of my mouth was, 'Where is Rockville?'"
Vallee ended up visiting the shop, which at the time was on Union Street. Owned by an older cobbler by the name of Sal, he had built a store in front of his home before zoning established separate business and residential districts.
"I bought his business and was his tenant from Labor Day in 1983 until 1997," said Vallee.
After 1997, he moved up the road to his current location.
"Cobbling is a dirty business," said Vallee.
Between sanding, grinding, and polishing, there's always a lot of debris on the shop floor, and try as he does to keep up with cleaning, it's always a challenge.
"It's a difficult business, too, because you can hurt yourself pretty good. Sanding machines are mean on the skin. And I've gotten a good scar from one of my knives. I consider myself lucky to be so close to Rockville Hospital."
The work might be tough, but Vallee enjoys having a little fun with his shop too, namely in his front window - where he once outfitted an old cobbler's bench with a scarecrow his wife had made for Halloween.
"We rigged it too look like an old cobbler sitting on his bench with a hammer," he said.
His customers, though, know him best by his trademark giant old shoe, handcrafted by a tin knocker in the 1930s.
"It was my father's originally," he said.
Voted in May as best cobbler in Connecticut by Hartford Magazine, Vallee has over the years repaired everything from Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman's six-inch stilettos to zippers on body bags for local funeral homes.
"I've even repaired Santa's work boots," said Vallee, explaining he got a visit from the big man in red last summer. "I never knew his real name. I just knew him as Santa. He dropped off his boots saying he'd be back before Christmas, but Christmas came and went and he never returned. For a while, I had a sign in my window saying, 'Have you seen santa?'"
A good portion of Vallee's business comes from the orthopedic shoe market, where he is called on to add elevations to shoes when customers have one leg that is slightly shorter than another.
"That kind of work is more interesting and challenging than my every day work, but it's also where I get my most satisfaction," said Vallee. "To see someone be able to walk better and feel better because of the work I've done means a lot. Rockville has been great to me, and I'm proud that I can make a difference helping others and repairing things of value to them."