Shoes and purses – leather and rubber – fill the space at Nu-Life Shoe Repair, a fading profession, where customers have 'all sorts of good stuff' done for their shoes.
On a sunny Saturday morning, Alvin Hooper stood outside of Nu-Life Shoe Repair and talked about his life in the shoe business for the past 35 years, as one of his three employees worked on a finishing machine.
The building smelled like leather and rubber. Shoes, purses and small scraps decorated the space. Hooper explained that the machine helps with sanding, trimming heels and all of the finish work to complete a shoe. It hummed at the man working with it and the 570 square-foot building was filled with its whirring sound.
Hooper was not a man of many words. Wearing a black, stained Goodyear Rubber apron, he smiled and leaned against the building with his hands in his pockets. He took his time to answer questions, correcting himself a few times on the details of his life.
A native Memphian, Hooper grew up in Foote Homes in the 1970s and graduated from Booker T. Washington High School, where he took vocational classes and learned to repair shoes.
“I did not go to college. I graduated and started working,” he said. “It’s sad that they don’t have as many vocational classes anymore. Some people are just not going to go to college, but if they could graduate with a trade they would have something to do.”
Hooper got a job at a shoe repair supply store while still in high school and continued to work there after he graduated. He was 23 years old in 1982, when he met someone at the store that sold him his first business for $16,000 - Charlie’s Shoe Shop on Trigg and Wellington.
He later changed the name of the business to Nu-Life Shoe Repair.
“I am a Christian and I try to walk in new life. I was thinking about spreading that,” he said. “When you become a Christian, you have new life. That’s what we do to the shoes as well. We give them new life. You talk about saving souls, you literally save the soles on shoes.”
Nu-Life has been at its current location at 699 Waring Road for the past 20 years. It is open Monday-Friday from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Though Hooper does not have a website, Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, his business is one of the first to pop up in a Google search for shoe repair in Memphis. He said he advertises sometimes and has purchased a couple of radio spots over the years. Other than that, his business is completely word of mouth.
Alvin Hooper said he advertises sometimes, but his business is mainly word of mouth.
Dianne Thornton, a five-year Nu-Life customer, said she has taken at least 15 pairs of shoes to Hooper over the years between two adults and two teenagers and that he’s done, “all sorts of good stuff,” to their shoes.
“We’ve taken shoes there for everything — new heels, new soles and basically asked him to completely rebuild some shoes,” she said. “I don’t think there isn’t a thing he won’t do for us.”
Thornton said it helps that Hooper is an “indelible soul,” that seems to be a neighborhood staple drawing all types of people to his store.
The minimum cost for shoe repair at Nu-Life is $6.50 for things like tears and small glue jobs and can go up to $75 for things like replacing the full soles on boots. He also does dye jobs, shining, some luggage repair, cleaning and reconditioning. Hooper’s most popular service is replacing the taps of heels and the soles of shoes.
He has worked with almost any type of shoe one can think of from Christian Louboutin’s to alligator skin shoes and clown shoes, which he said don’t really have size; they’re just really big.
“The foundation for all shoes are the same. I give special care no matter what name is on the shoe,” he said. “I try to get those who spend a lot of money on their shoes to do preventive medicine — things like protective soles so it won’t wear out so quickly.”
When he started his business, Hooper worked alone and now has two full-time employees and one part-time employee. One employee has been with him for 20 years and the other owned his own shoe repair shop for 30 years before retiring.
Hooper said his customers come primarily from Arkansas and Tennessee, and that he repairs about 1,000 shoes per month.
“There are not many of us left anymore, and we have to service a large area. Last year about 3 shops closed due to retirement,” he said. “It’s a dying art. No one is really learning it. Younger people are not interested or haven’t really seen a way they can make money in it.”
According to occupational employment figures from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics there are 7,780 shoe and leather worker repairers in the country with 180 in Tennessee.
“We try to do the best job we can at the least amount of cost to the customer, and we try to be courteous in all that we do and have integrity,” he said. “So if they come here, we try to give them the best job possible.”