Carlos Gomez’s reputation as a skilled cobbler has brought him a long way from his hometown of Gualaceo, Ecuador.
By Joe Miller
Carlos Gomez holds up a tattered pair of women’s high heel sandals. The leather is frayed, the brown color is faded, and most of the stitching is gone. The shoes are beyond repair, but their owner just can’t say goodbye.
“People love their shoes,” Gomez says as he shows off a nearly identical copy of the same high heels, polished and beautiful. Usually Gomez can repair the shoes, but for this job he knew he had to recreate them from scratch. “It’s not easy to make everyone happy, but I do my best,” he says. “I never say no.”
Gomez’s reputation as a skilled cobbler has brought him a long way from his hometown of Gualaceo, Ecuador, where he learned his trade as a boy from his father. Today, at age 50, Gomez owns three shoe repair shops in the Cleveland area, including Gomez Shoe Repair located at 16802 Chagrin Boulevard.
Two years ago, Gomez saw an opportunity to come to Shaker when Al Nola Shoe Repair ended its 54-year run. Gomez initially took over the Al Nola location on Chagrin Boulevard across from Shaker Hardware and later moved a couple of doors down. There’s little indication that the current store was formerly a restaurant. The front is packed with shoes, handbags, and luggage for sale. The back of the shop is filled with hand tools, shoe forms, and machinery. Gomez, with hands stained by years of leatherwork, grabs a pair of worn metal pliers. His father used the very same tool, or pinza in Spanish, to make shoes when he was a teen. Although he has machines that stitch leather and nail on shoe soles, Gomez feels more comfortable relying on his own dexterity.
“In Ecuador, I did everything by hand. All my life I have done this.”
Some of his customers believe Gomez can work miracles. Dr. Shreeniwas Lele, an internist at University Hospitals, was born in India with a club foot, which in recent years has threatened his ability to walk. His own doctors told him he’d soon be in a wheelchair, but then Dr. Lele found a colleague willing to design him entirely new shoes and then a shoemaker – Gomez – with the know-how to make them.
This past August, Dr. Lele took a pair of Gomez-adapted shoes to Nepal and, after a helicopter ride, walked around a base camp at Mt. Everest, about 10,000 feet below the 29,000-foot peak.
“Guess what? I’m not using a wheelchair,” Dr. Lele says. “The shoes changed my life. Carlos is a magical guy.”
Diana Khouri, a Shaker Heights-based criminal lawyer, has suffered from rheumatoid arthritis in her feet for nearly two decades. For years she had to wear open sandals because of the severe pain, even in the dead of winter. “And then my toes would not only be frozen, but my hose would be wet,” she says.
Medical professionals tried and failed to help Khouri. Then she found Gomez, who not only designed permanent inserts for her existing shoes that eased her pain, but also hand built her a pair of stylish black leather, closed-toe pumps.
Walking in those shoes brought Khouri to tears. “Even my mom was crying,” Khouri says.
For Gomez, shoes are a family affair. His wife, Elsa, does the stitching on most of the shoes, and also repairs and recreates purses and luggage, sometimes replacing cheap plastic with real leather. His uncle works in the Shaker store and two of his brothers have taken over his former shops in downtown Cleveland and Parma. Gomez’s 70-year-old father occasionally pitches in during visits from Ecuador, and his 19-year-old son, Charles, is training to eventually take over the business.
Someday soon, Gomez hopes to have a “Gomez” branded shoe on the shelves of his Shaker shop. “This is an art,” he says. “I can create anything with my fingers.”