On a typical workday, 61-year-old Eddie Tatum can be found sculpting foam for orthopedic shoes or using his 50-year-old heavy duty sewing machine to stitch on soles.
Despite the dwindling numbers of cobblers in the nation, Tatum, who owns the Red Shoe House, has managed to keep his shop open in Gainesville for decades.
This year marks the shoe repair store’s 50th year in business.
Tatum said he owes the success of his shop to the generations of customers who walk through his doors every day.
“It’s not as rewarding financially as it used to be, but I still make a living,” Tatum said. “With this being around for so many years, we have people who look like they’re my age walk in and say, ‘Oh, my mom used to bring me here when I was a little girl.’”
L.C. Howse was the original owner of the shop when it opened in 1969. Tatum said the name of the business was inspired by Howse, who everyone called “Red.”
Tatum’s father, Fate Tatum, worked for Howse for a couple of years and bought the business from him.
When Eddie Tatum turned 15, he started working for his dad on Saturdays.
“I just kind of grew into the business and took it over when my father retired in the early ’80s because his health was bad,” Tatum said. “I’ve been here ever since.”
Like his father, Eddie Tatum has passed down the skills of the trade to his son, Daniel Tatum.
Carl and Sandra Haasis have been driving from Dawsonville for over six years to get Tatum’s services.
“You just don’t find cobblers anymore,” Sandra Haasis said. “We have vintage stuff that we can’t get rid of, we need to get it fixed. We love his work.”
Over the decades of owning the shop, Tatum said he has seen a decline in the need for cobblers and an increase in the amount of imported, low-quality shoes.
He said one of the biggest challenges he deals with in his shop includes repairing cheaply made shoes.
“The bad quality has changed the shoe repair business,” Tatum said. “They’re making the soles out of plastic-type material other than rubber or leather.”
Tatum’s son said oftentimes with cheaply made shoes, they have to turn customers away or “say a prayer over it.”
One thing that hasn’t changed much about Tatum’s craft is the equipment.
Tatum still uses a couple of the machines that have remained in the store since it opened 50 years ago.
The 1969 Landis sewing machine can still stitch soles on shoes with its heavy duty needles.
In addition to shoes, Tatum repairs purses, suitcases, belts and other leather items.
Tatum said around 10% of his customers ask for orthopedic-related shoe modifications.
In most cases, Tatum said he adds extra height to one shoe in a pair by attaching a light-weight foam material to the soles.
He carefully sculpts the extra foam into the shoe, making the addition as subtle as possible.
“The challenge is making it look good,” he said. “I want it to look like something I would wear if I was in that situation. I’m very conscious of how we make it appear.”
Out of all of his customers, Tatum said he will never forget one lady who first came to the shop in a wheelchair. She had rheumatoid arthritis and needed a modified shoe with light-weight soles.
Two months after Tatum made the shoes for her, he received a phone call.
The man on the other line told Tatum that the woman he helped had died.
“I said, ‘When did she pass away?’” Tatum recounted. “They said, ‘This morning.’ They thought enough of me to call me that morning, and it rattled me a little bit.”
The man who called Tatum was the woman’s husband. He told Tatum that thanks to the shoes, his wife was able to walk for the last two months of her life.
“The guy still comes in here,” Tatum said. “Helping people like that is probably the most rewarding thing of the whole business.”
Although his son has the skills to take over the business, Tatum said he hasn’t considered retiring yet.
“I’m not as fast as I used to be, and people have to be a little more patient,” he said. “I’m still 61 years old, and I don’t want to quit working. As long as my health holds up, I’ll be here.”
People can find the Red Shoe House at 822 Oak St. in Gainesville. The shop’s hours are from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday. For more information, call 770-532-3772