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From the Publisher's Desk – Baker keeps tradition alive (Aug. 12, 2015 issue)

The smell of leather permeates the air as you enter Baker’s Shoe Repair and Saddle Shop on Main Street. It’s a rich smell that has been common all the way back through the ages, but not so much in today’s world. Tony Baker, owner of the shop, keeps a heritage alive that is quickly becoming a lost art. In fact, his shop is one of the few remaining of its nature in the entire area.
Of course customers still bring in that favorite pair of shoes to see if something can be done to extend the life. But, along with that, Tony does everything from belts, to wallets, to Bible covers to gun holsters and more.
I stopped by to visit Tony last week and was greeted by his friendly smile and welcoming nature. I stood there in amazement with my eyes gazing around the room. The first part of the store is a gallery of his beautiful crafted leather pieces. Behind the counter is the work space, filled with hundreds of small, delicate tools to create just about anything imaginable.
Tony has been in the business now for about 35 years. He and his wife, Patty, got their training at a vocational school in Knoxville. He came to Erwin and took over Bob McElyea’s shoe shop. The school closed about five years after Tony and Patty graduated and he doesn’t know of another like it in the area.
Most shoe shops in the surrounding area have now closed due to owners passing or retiring. Tony said he often gets visitors from out of town that come by and tell him the shop in their town is no longer open. Tony now gets customers from all over the area and many from North Carolina.
He carries a variety of leathers, mostly cowhide, but with various thicknesses and degrees of softness. “It’s all in the tanning process,” he said. “There are still tanneries in the U.S., but a lot come from overseas. We get a lot from Ohio and the Midwest.” Tony said that strict environmental laws are causing some tanners to get out of the business.
Most of the tools in the shoe shop are hand tools. There are a few larger pieces that allow more capabilities in doing repairs and a few of them are newer. “I retired our old harness stitcher about three months ago,” Tony said. “It was a piece from the late 1800s.” Tony had kept putting it off due to the large expense but he decided it was time for a new one. “I can now sew without being a mechanic, too,” he said. After purchasing the new machine Tony realized what he was going to save in time required, would help cover the expense of the equipment.
A lot of the new shoes aren’t made to be repaired, but rather replaced. It seems typical for the world we live in today. Some can be repaired and other times it is cheaper to buy a new pair. “I give them a quote and my opinion on whether the item is worth repairing,” Tony said. “When we get done I want them to be happy. When they go away happy they tell others about us.”
Tony wakes up in the morning and starts planning his day. He always has a list of projects and items to make or repair. “Not many people get to take a hobby and make a profession out of it,” he said. “Erwin has been a good place to have a business. It’s not a job you get wealthy at, but for motivation and the thrill of repairing things, it can’t be beat.”
When asked what his most unusual item request had been, Tony said a jock strap. Years ago, when the rock band Kiss came to Freedom Hall, one of the group members wore the piece as part of his stage costume. It had broken and someone brought it to Erwin for a quick repair.