When shoes, handbags, belts, saddles, and other functional items wear down or fall apart unexpectedly, the people of Erwin can bring them to Baker’s Shoe Repair at 116 South Main Street in the hopes of restoration.
“You have to be creative,” Tony Baker said while discussing his strategies to repair items brought to him by customers. Baker also said that this business has a long history in the town of Erwin, but the trade skill is becoming increasingly rare.
Its successful tenure of more than 40 years is the result of high-quality standards and commitment to customer satisfaction. This leatherworking shop has been in business since 1980 when a family connection brought Baker to a saddle shop in Erwin. Baker first considered boot making, but after spending a week visiting a boot making school in Oklahoma, he decided the upfront cost was too high. Instead, he spent two years learning shoe repair at the Knoxville State Area Vocational School and now offers a variety of repair services and original products made from the highest quality leather.
“We’ve been diversified,” he explained. Indeed, the shop is full of hand worked items built to be functional like equine gear, knife sheaths, wallets, holsters, and more while also having an aesthetic appeal. The diverse products, Baker said, help the business persevere through the ebbs and flows of the economy. Joshua Dean, a nine-year employee of the shop, said the vocation allows him to work as a craftsman, “but with a fine touch.”
As a local bachelor of arts graduate of East Tennessee State University, Dean contributes a sharp eye for color and adds cosmetic features like colored threads stitched into many products. Their workstations, which are on view behind the front counter, is an interesting blend of a tradesman’s tool shop and an artist’s creative studio. Many of the tools are recognizable such as pliers, vise grips, hammers, and belt sanders, but with unique features specially designed for the trade.
In addition to the repair shop, Baker has run a karate studio, but recently is reducing his workload by focusing on the leatherworking shop. The store moved into its current location, Baker said, to concentrate on maintaining one building. Baker’s Shoe Repair and Saddle Shop, according to Baker, is a consistently successful store that avoided supply chain issues since the pandemic began, excepting some difficulty acquiring belt buckles.
“We never ran out of them though,” he said. While discussing the choice between replacing cheaply made items as opposed to investing in repairable items of higher quality, Dean recommends considering the long-term benefits of spending more initially for a fixable item built to last. The two craftsmen say they are proud of their ability to redesign items not intended to be repairable, so that it does not require replacement. Baker said customer satisfaction is the central purpose of this small business.
“You have to make more people happy than you make mad,” said the owner, “(and) you have to always keep the door open for customers.” Dean said that many entering the store are initially resistant to the higher price point, but there is value over time in a product that lasts a lifetime. According to the owner, they only use the highest quality leather available, and they source material from tanneries in Ohio and Kentucky.
Each product features the store logo signifying a unique and locally made item. The team at Baker’s Shoe Repair and Saddle Shop want to serve the needs of their community by selling and repairing quality items that will resist the wear and tear of daily use.