Originally printed - September 10, 1979
He grunted with the exertion of pulling the heavy white polyester cord tight on the moccasin toe of the shoe he was forming. Lyle MacRostie is a cobbler.
"A lot of people got into crafts (oofff) in the '60s and the early '70s. Enough time has passed that the people who weren't genuinely interested have gotten out (mmmph). The ones who stayed, and really learned their craft are just coming into their own.
"I got in when I was working for the Ramsey County Tax Assessor and I saw a handmade boot. I said 'I want to do that.' Two weeks later I was learning it."
He pulled the partially completed shoe off the sewing jack and held it up for inspection. "Looking good," he said.
MacRostie is a slender, bearded 29-year-old St. Paul man with a tiny shop at 1832 St. Clair Ave., in the Macalester-Groveland area. He's never going to be rich and powerful, he's never going to run a factory, he doesn't fit on any fashionable trend line of upward mobility. It's kind of refreshing, actually, to meet somebody like this: A man willing to bust his butt doing hard honest work.
"The place is small but I look at it this way: Six months ago I was working out of my basement. This is about a million percent better," he said.
MacRostie is an anachronism. Not only is he a cobbler -- a rare enough thing in itself, at a time when cobbling tools are becoming collectible rarities -- but he actually apprenticed himself out to learn his trade.
"I worked for Gokey's. They had a nine-man shop turning out quality boots and shoes. They said 'We'll teach you to do hand-sewing. Then we want you to do the job a while, before you go on to anything else, to pay us back for teaching you.'
"I thought, 'That sounds fair,' so I did it. But I arranged to take my lunch hour at a different time than everybody else, so when they came back from lunch I'd check out. Then I'd go watch the guys doing their jobs. At the end of a year, I quit and started working on all those techniques myself."
It took him nine years to get from Gokey's to MacRostie Leathers.
"It's just now that we're really making a living. If I ever got out of here in less than 65 hours a week, I'd be, I don't know ... overcome, I guess. The same thing for Elaine (his wife). There wouldn't be any MacRostie Leathers if it wasn't for Elaine MacRostie."
The shop operation is simple enough. Shoe leather is cut and worked by MacRostie, Elaine or the shop's one full-time employee, Mark Traster, into what amounts to blanks -- combinations of machine-sewn leather in which you can almost see a shoe.
The blanks then go to MacRostie, who stretches and pins and handsews them into shoes, all individually fitted to the customer's feet.
"A lost of people have feet that are slightly different sized. That doesn't make any difference to us -- we just make two slightly different-sized shoes," MacRostie said.
What is not quite so simple, MacRostie said, is understanding the leather itself and how it acts under the stresses that a foot puts on it.
"It takes a good while to put a decent shoe together. Once you understand the leather and the techniques, you can do it, but it's not easy. Most commercial shoes, now, are stamped out and slapped together with hot glue. They just won't last. My shoes -- my shoes are gonna wear."
There is only one way to pick up an understanding of leather, he said, and that is to work it. "I have an afghan on the bottom leather shelf, and our 5-year-old boy sleeps in there sometimes when we're getting toward midnight. Some nights just go on," he said.
One of the fascinating things about any craft is the tools -- tools that look like bent and warped pliers or French hammers, but turn out to be the best and maybe only thing that will do a specific job. A cobbler's shop, like a blacksmith's, is full of them. Tools like lasting pinchers, awls, shank lasters, and Crispin hammers -- the last named after St. Crispin, the patron saint of cobblers, a Roman sandal maker in the year 285.
"The tools are disappearing. My lasting pincher was made by my brother, who is a pattern maker. He had to make a model out of wood, then make a mold and cast the parts. Finding some things is impossible."
MacRostie enjoys the work, but says the shop won't make him rich.
"But I think it's going to make me comfortable. I'm not sure what I would do rich. I just want to make enough to support myself and my family and the families of the people who work here. That's all."
© 2003 MacRostie Leathers
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