Address: 405 Glen Huntly Rd, Elsternwick VIC 3185
From an interview with Jane Blight that has been edited.
My grandfather started Blight’s Shoe Repair in 1932.
His name was Samuel Newton Blight. He developed a system of coating leather soles in paraffin wax. That made them waterproof and long-lasting.
He had a contract with the Australian Army and, when the Second World War started, he’d use this (now) dusty machine called the Blake Stitcher to sew leather soles onto the boots.
To give you an idea of the amount of work he had – as they stitched the sole on and painted the edges – he’d stack the shoes against the wall. All of the marks indicate how high the boot pile became.
He passed away in 1952 and my dad Newton Blight continued the business. Over the years it has been a toyshop and a variety shop. There was a barber here and a tailor worked upstairs.
But, since the 1930’s, it has always been a tobacconist and a shoe repair.
During the 1970s we became known as Blights Variety Store.
My parents started selling shoes and I lived above the shop.
After I turned eight I stated serving behind the counter. For forty years – in between going to school and attending university – I have worked here. Then my dad became sick in 1996.
I was doing a PhD, but I stopped studying and came back to the shop. Fortunately my husband Wes is good with repairs. He did a shoe making apprenticeship with my dad and has continued this line of work.
The workshop and the place itself has pretty much remained the same.
The Depression was an unusual time to start a business.
But my grandfather could see a need for shoe repairs when times were tough. With the possible exception of dancers, leather soles have become a pretty unusual thing. But, for them to be dipped into a paraffin wax was a pretty amazing invention at the time. So he was a bit of a go-getter.
Unfortunately, my dad contracted polio when he was 21 and always had a calliper on his leg. I think he was happy to come back and keep the shop going. We mainly use rubbery sorts of soles now.
They have a limited life span and – for a lot of years – they couldn’t be repaired.
There are different glues and products which allow them to be reheeled.
The street has changed a lot over the years.
When I was growing it was more of a working class area with all of these unusual businesses.
There was a shop next door that sold woollen material for knitting, and there were a lot of book exchange stores. Twenty years ago, there was no way there’d be empty shops in the street.
A lady who worked at the shop 70 years ago came in the other day and started telling us bits and pieces about our history, but we sort of get busy with our tasks.
We don’t have much time to reflect on our past.
Of course from the 1970s there were tariffs protecting different industries.
When that stopped it led to cheap imports into Australia. As a result, a lot of the shoe factories in Collingwood closed down. People who made shoes and shoe-components lost their jobs overnight. The influx of cheap shoes meant that it wasn’t worthwhile for customers to get their shoes repaired.
A lot of our work these days is adjusting, repairing and cleaning shoes. It’s not unusual for someone to buy a $1500 pair of shoes and get a pair of soles put in. And, with office shoes, people pay a lot of money so – when the heels wear out – they’ll come and get them repaired.
I think there is a new emphasis on reusing, recycling and not being wasteful.
It has encouraged a mindset of “can I get this repaired?” and “can this be fixed?”
It’s good that we have been able to keep the business going.
We don’t use credit card facilities. It’s mainly because the margins on cigarettes are really low. We’ve been a tobacconist for 85-86 years but it is increasingly a difficult section to deal with.
The business is very low-tech in a way. We don’t have a computer at the front of the shop. We have one out the back for accounting purposes but, otherwise, I wouldn’t bother. I keep a manual ledger every day and the tickets are all written by hand. Customers tell us their name and then they get their shoes.
I guess we’re lucky that – if customers need to fix their shoes – they have to physically bring them in.
If it was all sales, online shopping would have had a bigger impact on the business.
There are still people who stumble across us.
For residents who have just moved into the area, the key cutting side of the business can be really good. We’re not a locksmith but, if people can’t open the door, Wes might go across the road and help them.
And we also always have our dogs Keith and Coco here. That explains the dog chews that we sell. A lot of animal lovers see the dogs biting things and say, “what have your dogs got.”
Wes have also been sharpening knives for 10-15 years, and the girls have recently started selling lemons for pocket money. So I guess when we see a need, we try to fill it.
But – with the exception of the cigarettes where the trade has slowed down – the business has remained the same.
A lot of people like that we look old fashioned.
We use the same hammer as my grandfather. Some of the materials have changed but all the screws, tacks and plates remain the same.
In terms of the future, I think we’ll just keep on going.
Some people say to us, “oh you can’t retire” and I think that’s a lot of pressure.
But you don’t want to be the one to knock down the place.
Written by Aron Lewin