Nov 23, 2023

A little shoe repair shop somehow survived nearly a century in downtown Tampa

TAMPA - Yes, Hillsborough Circuit Judge Nick Nazaretian wears cowboy boots to court.

But his favorite shoes are a pair of navy blue Allen Edmonds loafers, the kind that sometimes sport pennies, size 12, well-worn and, truth be told, slightly gnawed by one of his dogs.

"They’re so comfortable," the judge said. "I don't know if you have a pair of shoes like that, but I’ve had them probably 25 years."

He credits his loafers’ longevity to a hole-in-the-wall repair-and-shoeshine shop not far from the courthouse where he works. In fact, they’ve been fixing and shining shoes for close to a century in that space — at the center of a downtown that once teemed with life as streetcars rumbled past, later faded to a ghost town after 5 p.m., and is now enjoying an epic surge in both development and energy.

The shoe repair shop was there when the nearby Maas Brothers department store was open and bustling with shoppers, and when it was demolished in 2006. It was there when 40 students staged a historic sit-in at the Woolworth lunch counter blocks away — a store where protesters said they were allowed to spend their money but could not sit down and order a Coke. With help from government and local agencies and loyal customers, the shop survived the long pandemic months that all but shut down the city.

Today, the shop is still fixing shoes.

"I probably had soles put on those shoes four times," Nazaretian said. "They saved them. It's like a shoe hospital."

Which, for the record, is exactly how the shop at 305 E Twiggs Street — a place Al Capone is rumored to have gotten a shoeshine — started out.

Around 1928, the Hillsboro Shoe Hospital (location No. 2) opened in the space that had previously housed a men's furnishings store that sold belts, cufflinks and such, said Rodney Kite-Powell of the Tampa Bay History Center. That short stretch of Twiggs Street was a men's retail mecca with a Florsheim Shoe Company, United Barber Shop and cigar store.

Today, the old-school sign that hangs outside says Reina Repair — the name of a previous owner that there never seemed to be a reason to change, according to the current one. There's still a barber shop space next door, but today neighbors include a sleek Mediterranean restaurant called Dio, a kava bar and a Jerk Hut food truck.

Still, walking into the 269-square-foot shop with the burglar bars and the humming plug-in AC is like stepping back in time.

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It's dark, cool and quiet and smells of leather and shoe polish. Machines built in the 1940s to stitch, sand, patch, brush and trim are still at work here. Kitschy signs say "One shoe can change your life - Cinderella" and "If the shoe fits, repair it." Ederney Arismendis, who bought the place two decades ago, bends over a man's dress shoe, working it with a delicate tool.

The Colombia-born Arismendis, 68, did sightseeing tours in New York City until the reverberating effects of 9/11. Come to Florida, his older brother said. I’ll sell you my shop.

Arismendis knew nothing about the shoe repair business. "You will learn," his brother said, and he did, down to the shoeshines. His personality suited chatting with customers when they brought him their broken heels and worn soles.

"What happened is I love people," he said. "I love talking with all different kinds."

In the shop he discovered some very old tools and once, about $30 in very old bills. A customer showed him a historic photo from the library with people lined up all the way to Franklin Street waiting to get their shoes shined. But asked if the place had ghosts, Arismendis shook his head.

"No ghosts," he said.

The shop is all but crammed with stacked shoeboxes, wooden shoe stretchers, polishes and sprays — but mostly, with shoes: men's dress shoes of all size and variety, women's pumps, slingbacks and kitten heels, Gucci and Prada, rich leather and fake snakeskin, and in a corner, a shiny black pair of knee-high police boots. Arismendis said he's had $2,000 shoes here, but also shoes he's told customers weren't worth the cost to repair.

"Sometimes, they’ll say ‘yes, fix it,’" he said. "Because they love the shoes."

For shoeshines, two vintage theater-style chairs sit on a platform by the picture window overlooking the street and the downtown passersby. The chairs have metal art deco-style sides and crescent moons carved into their wooden armrests. (The description of the crescents made Kite-Powell wonder if they came from the old Park Theater that's now the Falk Theater across from the historic University of Tampa — known for its distinctive crescent moon-topped minarets.)

Arismendis said a customer has a standing offer to buy those chairs — and the whole shoeshine corner — to put in his office.

"Not yet," he said.

With those chairs comes this passed-down story: As Arismendis tells it, famed gangster Al Capone was in Ybor City in the 1930s for the the illegal lottery known as bolita, and he stopped here for a shoeshine in the very chair that today sits closest to the window.

There have been stories about Capone in St. Petersburg, which could lend credence to a Tampa visit. Still, historian Kite-Powell said he hadn't seen or heard anything about Capone in Tampa.

"Not to say he didn't, but I’ve never heard of it," he said. "It is certainly possible that Capone came to Tampa. And it's possible he looked down as he walked down the street and said, if his shoes were dirty, ‘Oh, there's a shoeshine place.’"

For years, women in work attire have come limping in with broken heels and places to be. Judge Nazaretian came in the 1990s as a young prosecutor to get the shoes that he wore in front of judges and juries buffed to a glow.

"Then you’d walk back to the courthouse with your shined shoes," he said. "It was a big deal."

Next door used to be a lunch spot popular with downtown workers called Sumos Thai Cafe. In 2003, its owner made headlines after he was robbed at gunpoint one night and chased the robber with his SUV, hit him and killed him. Three years later, the owner was acquitted of manslaughter. The restaurant thrived for years before it eventually closed.

These days Arismendis opens at 7 a.m. as people are just trickling in to work. He's done at 4:30 p.m. before downtown's now-burgeoning nightlife starts to stir.

People don't get shoeshines like they used to — "They’re wearing tennis shoes, they’re wearing sandals," he said — and a lot of former downtowners are still working from home. But he has his regulars.

"They like me," he said. "I love them."

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