Miami-Dade County

After 50 years, Overtown’s last cobbler packs it up

Lovell Singletary, 84, runs a shoe repair store at 1034 NW Third Ave. He has to close down soon after 50 years in Overtown because a developer is renovating the building.
Lovell Singletary, 84, runs a shoe repair store at 1034 NW Third Ave. He has to close down soon after 50 years in Overtown because a developer is renovating the building. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Bereatha Howard is having a crisis of the sole.

The left half of her treasured pair of black Calvin Kleins has ripped apart at the seams. And so she she is doing what so many in Overtown have done for so many years: walking down Third Avenue, her shoes in a white plastic bag, to find Lovell Singletary.

“These are my favorite shoes,” she says, handing the bag to a man sitting outside next to a plastic children’s table, wearing a tattered green cap sideways like a beret. “Do you think you can fix it?”

Singletary gives the shoes a quick look and nods. “By 4 o’clock,” he tells her.

For decades, frugal men and women have brought their shoes to Singletary’s shop in search of his increasingly rare talents and equipment. The cobbler, now a month shy of his 85th birthday, bought Economy Shoe Repair here in 1966, back when Miami’s black community was thriving and shine stands were full.

But Howard’s shoes may be among the last Singletary will stitch or glue back together. After 50 years, Overtown’s last cobbler is leaving Third Avenue. And he may just call it quits.

“I do everybody’s shoes,” he says, pointing a finger inside a dank store where pairs of repaired shoes lay scattered among heavy machinery. “All that’s got to go.”

Singletary isn’t sure he wants to retire, but he can’t stay put. The old building where he lives and works is being vacated to make way for a planned renovation project. Urban Philanthropies, the non-profit that owns the property, says the building is infested with roaches and termites and is beginning to fall apart, making it unsafe for the people who live and work there.

Singletary and his neighbors have to be out by Saturday.

“I don’t want to give it up, but I can always start back,” he says. “I love fixing shoes.”

It’s what Singletary has been doing most his life. He says he received his training in Jacksonville, paid for through funds provided by the GI Bill after he served in the US Army during the Korean War. He says when he applied for courses, he was given only a few choices for trades: shoe repair, cabinet making, and tailoring.

He moved to the Miami area in the 60s to be closer to his daughter. In 1966, his girlfriend convinced him to buy Economy Shoe Repair at Third Avenue and Tenth Street. Back then, business and Overtown were bustling, and Singletary could pay his rent from the money he made simply shining shoes.

“You had five shops over here,” Singletary said. “They all was booming. All of us was making money.”

Around the same time, construction began on Interstate 95 and 395. The path of the highways went right through the heart of Overtown, devastating the community. And then in the early 80s, the Metrorail line was built -- right through Singletary’s store.

Forced to move, the shoe repairman broke down his machines and rolled them on a dolly one block over to a new store, where he’s been for 34 years.

On Friday, he opened his shop what may have been the last hours of a fading business. The Shoe Service Institute of America says there are only about 6,500 cobblers in the country, compared to 120,000 during the great depression. Irby McKnight, Overtown’s unofficial mayor and activist, believes Singletary owns the last cobbler’s shop in Overtown.

“That’s the last shoe shop in the black community, period,” he said.

But there is still business in Overtown. Singletary says many of his customers are church-going women who don’t want to buy new shoes when their old pairs fall apart. Some simply want their shoes shined. Others, like Marie from Coral Gables, use Singletary’s skills to help them sell clothes on the secondary market.

“He’s the best in the city. The cheapest in the city,” says Marie, who won’t give her last name because her husband doesn’t like her driving into Overtown for shoe repairs. “People throw their shoes away. I buy them and fix them. And I sell them.”

She drops off a pair of black, size 8 1/2 BCBG boots with pumps. The lift -- the piece at the bottom of the pump -- is cracked and needs to be replaced.

Singletary grabs a thin, serrated knife and with a flew flicks of his wrist sends plastic bits flying onto the sidewalk. He clears off the shoe with his thumb, finds a new lift and glues it on. Then he walks into his shop, past buckets that catch water that drips from the ceiling and past Buddy Singletary, the yappy Pomeranian, toward a large machine called the finisher.

He flips a switch that sends belts whirring, spinning a sander that he uses to shave down the new lift to size.

“I’m always busy and fast,” he says. “I’m not bragging, but I didn’t come off the streets to do this.”

Singletary is closing shop at a difficult time in Overtown, where some residents are worried about being pushed out by new development. But Philip Bacon, the head of property owner Urban Philanthropies, says the opposite is happening at Singletary’s building.

He has told Singletary that his non-profit is moving tenants to a building on 12th Street. Bacon says his non-profit hopes to renovate the Third Avenue building and bring it back as an apartment and commercial building, and residents will have first right to move back in, although at a possibly unaffordable market rent.

Bacon said in an interview that he’s also giving Singletary extra time to sell or move his cobbler’s equipment, and will pay him a lump sum worth two years of lost compensation. In exchange, they’re asking that he stop taking on business in the shop.

“Our hearts are with people like Mr. Singletary. I love the man. I love what he’s done,” said Bacon. “We know that it just can not continue under the conditions he currently finds himself in at that shop.”

Late Friday afternoon, Singletary said he’s likely just going to junk his machines, because selling them has proved difficult. But he said he learned good news from the head of Overtown’s redevelopment agency, who said he may try to find a space for Singletary to reopen.

“It’s up to me,” he said.