Robert Giaquinto’s shop at 115 South Warren Street in downtown Trenton isn’t pretty. In fact, the decades-old city fixture shows its wear and tear — a condition that fittingly sets the stage for what it is all about.
“I recraft shoes and repair shoes, handbags, jackets, and belts,” says Giaquinto, 58. “If it can be fixed, I can repair it. Anything.”
The sole survivor in a throw away culture, Giaquinto basically stepped into his father’s shoes and a career.
“My dad started in 1947,” Giaquinto says between handing out brown-bags of spruced-up shoes to customers stepping in and out during a recent Friday afternoon.
He says his dad — the original R on the R. Giaquinto’s Shoe Shop sign — started repairing shoes in Gimbles and Lit Brothers department stores before getting his own shop on Front Street.
Giaquinto provides some background. “My dad was born on Bond Street (in North Trenton). His father was a carpenter. His mother was pregnant with him when she came over from Italy on the boat. They came from a town outside Naples.”
He says his father began doing shoe work when he was a kid working in different shoe repair shops, making deliveries on a bike and then in the shop.
“Then he got drafted and went to work for the Army. They kept him at Fort Dix. It was very important for there to be a shoe repair center (for the military). At one point they shipped him to Panama, and he was there for a few years. When he came back he bought the shop. I have the bill of sale and the lease from Lit Brothers.”
About his own life, he says, “I’m adopted. I was born in upstate New York, the Village of Silver Creek.”
He says a Lutheran minister friend of his parents was the one who helped make the arrangement for Robert and his older brother to be adopted.
“We lived in the Whitehorse section of Hamilton. My mom still lives there,” says the 1980 graduate of Hamilton High West.
He says he got into the business when at age 10 he would get on the bus and “come down to my dad’s shop. I’d play out front and do little stuff here and there. But I finally got into the business when I was in high school. I had to get working papers to work for Kinney’s shoe store on Route 33 in Hamilton.”
Giaquinto worked there until he graduated from high school and then divided his time between Hamilton and the new shop at the Quakerbridge Mall.
“They had me driving from the Route 33 shop to the Quakerbridge Mall store. When they wouldn’t give me a managing position, I went to Art Broader’s Florsheim Shoes (in the Quakerbridge Mall).”
But he says he couldn’t take the management there and decided to go to work for his father.
“I was about 21 when I started working with him,” he says, noting his father was happy about the decision.
Giaquinto says the state took over the building his father was renting around 1981. “That’s when he moved over to Lafayette and Warren (it was a dry cleaner and now an empty lot). That was when I took it over.”
He says that in the early 1990s he moved to the current location and in the mid-1990s purchased the building from the locksmith Caola & Company. “I also make keys,” he says pointing to a wall of them.
After nearly 40 years of dealing with old heels and lost soles in downtown Trenton, Giaquinto says, “I love what I do. Especially when you get shoes that are falling apart and I recraft them. They look beautiful when they get done. I take something that looks like hell and make it look new.”
He then gets more specific. “I do everything, lifts and heels to recrafting anything to cementing anything. There are six different cements we have to keep on hand. There used to be one, but now there are different materials, and there are all kinds of crazy things that I have to do.”
Customers coming in for gluing soles (cost around $25) or quality shoe refurbishing (approximately $75) include “neighbors and state and federal workers. I run the gamut of everybody.”
He also gets an occasional special visitor. “Years ago it got to be whenever the circus was at the stadium something would come from them. I had to re-sole the clown shoes. I had done the high wire shoes. I had to do the harnesses and bridles for horses and collars for elephants. Whatever they need I’d do.”
He then smiles and says, “The clown shoes were huge. I had to buy a sheet of leather to fix the soles.”
Giaquinto says another business perk is “I am always learning. Some of the old-time shoemakers, they don’t want to learn or do something different. I’m very much into that.
“I am in the Shoe Service Institute of America (SSIA). They hold conventions with new products and sessions. I also belong to Shoe Repair International, SRI. That’s big on Facebook and all over the world. We have members from Greece, Mexico, and they post pictures of what they do and how they do it.
“Between both associations you can submit rebuilds and recrafts. It’s a contest. They’re judged by our peers. So it’s neat to see what they put in for their awards. You get the guys who put out videotapes about what they did. And I learn. You learn a lot from those guys.”
“I never put anything in (the contests),” he says. “I don’t even post anything online regarding my work. As long as my customers are happy that is all that counts.
“But if I’m not sure of how to do something, I’ll put something out on the SRI Facebook and ask.”
He then adds that the SSIA website is a “reliable place” for people looking for a shoe repair maker and has a list that is growing shorter.
“I used to Google to find shoe repairers,” he says. But now, “there are not many.”
Another love, he says, is the downtown Trenton location, even though the current COVID-19 closures are affecting his business.
“Without the state and city being here, there’s nobody down here. That’s the hardest thing to deal with.”
He says one way to stay in business is through mailing. “People can mail (the job) to me. All they have to send is a name and daytime phone, and I’ll contact them and discuss what has to be done.”
But some love has come back through the state via an AAE loan, and “the Trenton Downtown Association gave me a nice grant,” he says.
The married father of two boys says another challenge is his health, affected by an autoimmune condition and breathing problems connected to his tools of the trade including solvents, glues, and dyes that he has used for the past four decades. “When I was younger I just had the door open and fans on. I didn’t have ventilation. I now do.”
Nevertheless, when he looks back and takes stock of his business, Giaquinto says, he his interest and investment are in a downtown Trenton shoe repair shop. “I love it down here.”
R. Giaquinto’s Shoe Repair, 115 South Warren Street, Trenton, Open Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturdays 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Closed Sundays. 609-599-9090 or rgiaquintoshoerepair.com.