Sunday, July 24, 2011

Tony's Shoe Repair: He Keeps the Shine on the Family Business

By Mitch Broder

Tony tries to run his shoe repair with the craftsmanship it had in the thirties, which is commendable since he didn’t run it then, and moreover, he isn’t Tony.

Tony is the son of Tony, who also isn’t Tony, but who is also the son of Tony, who also wasn’t Tony. The real Tony was the guy who opened the store in 1928 and sold it six years later to another guy, named Gaetano. Gaetano kept Tony’s sign, thus becoming the second Tony and setting the stage for his son Dan and grandson Gaetano, or Guy, to become the third and fourth Tonys.

Guy is the Tony I spoke with after being drawn into the store by its evocation of 1966, which is when it was last redecorated. He is Guy Pisani, the current owner, who has worked in the shop on and off since 1964, when he was five and shines were a quarter. He goes by Tony.

Guy took over from his father, Dan, in 1997, and by then, he says, the shop’s best days were behind it. Those were in the eighties, when the shop was in the heart of a teeming garment district. “We made more money in the eighties — charging two-thirds less — than I’m gonna make in the rest of my career,” he fatalistically claims.

Back then, the neighborhood supplied tens of thousands of potential customers, Guy says, of the kind that got their shoes shined three or more times a week. “If you took a job in the garment district in 1965 and worked there till 1995 and had five jobs in that time, you were never more than two or three blocks from Tony’s Shoe Repair.”

Now that the garment district’s in China, the old district is in decline. Tony’s Shoe Repair lives more on women’s shoe repairs than on men’s. And the district decline has been paralleled by the shiny-shoes decline. “It started out as dress-down Fridays,” Guy says. “Now it’s just dress-down.”

So along with fewer repairs there are fewer shines, which is a shame all around, because a shoeshine is a vanishing cheap thrill. For four bucks (everything’s gone up) you get to sit on a throne and have a man work at your feet. And at Tony’s, the five thrones transport you to a year of four percent unemployment.

They are red, vinyl, and high, with a backdrop of rec-room wood paneling and a sign that spells shoe-dyeing wrong, all within reach of a daily newspaper. Across from them are five black chairs with little red footstools. They are for awaiting unoccupied thrones. They are usually vacant.

Dan Pisani knew people, Guy says meaningfully, and the people he knew gave the shop an edge. “Tons of deals used to be made on the shoeshine stand,” he says. “Now they’re too busy texting someone they don’t need to text ’cause they’ve already been in touch with them four thousand times that day.”

No, he is not in love with the times. Nevertheless, he says he still loves the place, and he sounds like he means it. Though he has planned his getaway, he’s in no rush. Still, I wanted to try out a shoeshine. But I was in walking shoes. I’m part of the problem. My dress shoes are still shiny from 1996.

Guy forgave me. It was enough that I loved his stitchers. He showed me the antique machines, and I was duly impressed.

Meanwhile, customers came in and praised him. They respect him, and he respects them.

“There’s a lot of honesty in this type of work,” he says. “If you do the work right, you can do it for decades.


Step into Tony’s Shoe Repair, at 208 West 35th Street, between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, in Manhattan.


  1. Great article in so many places. Funny, thoughtful intro. NO idea how you keep coming up more. Great line..."My dress shoes are still shiny from 1996." So great to come here and find a new story every time. I bet even the Tony Guy can't fix my favorite boots. I think they are beyond beyond.

  2. Shoemakers are indeed a dying breed; I knew someone who was a shoemaker (he preferred to be called a cobbler but that always made me think of baked cobblers...) and he always had lovely shiny shoes. Thanks for helping me remember him. Keep up the good hunting for fun places Mitch!

  3. Brings back alot of memories as my dad was a shoe repairman and he was great at it. Funny he didn't like the word cobbler because he said he didn't make the shoes, just repaired them. I still get emotional when I go by a shop and glad to see more of them in NYC than my hometown in Pennsylvania.

  4. My Grandfather was a shoe repairman .. he was the original owner of his shop - and retired @ 1970 .. The shoe repair shop still stands and still carries his name .. but has had three or more owners since then.. I've told each owner if they ever change the sign that I want it! .. I have several items from the shop.. for the memories.. and once in a while I'll come across a shoe shop that I have to stop in just to see if I can smell the leather! Loved the article .. happy I came across it!