Local shoe-guru going strong at age 90

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 300 views 

Northwest Arkansas has seen many changes in the past few decades, but for one small corner shop in downtown Rogers, it has been business as usual for decades and the cobbler working inside.

The first thing you notice when you enter Walter's Boot & Shoe Repair is the smell. The unmistakable scent of stained leather and shoe polish permeating from every corner of the classic "mom and Pop" shop, hits you in the nose like a George Foreman jab and snaps you back to a place that pre-dates i-phone apps and bio-degradable foot-wear.

The second thing you notice is the stern-looking man at the counter, his white hair slicked back. He's still looking good at age 90. His hand are stained black from the polish of too many shoes to count, with reading glasses dangling from his worn neck and his wife Dorothy at his side.

Most, if not all men Carl Walter's age are either knocking balls around the golf course, or living out their final days surrounded by nurses and oxygen tanks. These things never seemed to suit Walter, who still works at least 40 hours a week, 50 weeks a year in his shop, repairing leather shoes, belts, baseball gloves and other cobbler duties.

"I feel like if anything, working has given me more reason to live and it’s actually added years to my life," Walter said. "I thought I would be dead eleven years ago. My dad only lived to be 79, but I guess you can say I am blessed to have my health and to have my shop. This business is tough these days. It’s not like it used to be."

Walter’s shoe repair business is a family venture. He learned the trade from his uncle Henry Walter, who ran a shop in Salina, Kan. for more than 50 years. After serving in the armed forces and interning with his uncle and two cousins, Carl was able to open his own shop in 1947. His brother Clarence Walter is still running a shop in Long Beach, Calif., at the age of 82.

"I don't think either of us thought we'd still be working full time at this age, but sitting around the house all day isn't something my husband is cut out to do," said Dorothy Walter. "I worked for 50 years as a nurse and after that I figured I would enjoy my retirement. But when I started coming to the shop to help out, I started to like it. My favorite thing is chatting with the customers. Sometimes I even pray with them."

Soon after going into business for himself, Carl met and married wife Dorothy and had two kids (Sandra and Tim). Walter ran his shop in Kansas until moving the business to Rogers in 1983.

"We enjoyed our time in Kansas and once the kids were out of the house (Dorothy) and I wanted to fulfill our dream of building our own house on the lake," Walter said. "When we first moved to (Rogers) and opened up this shop, there were around 22 shoe repairmen in this area. Now I think I am about the only one left."

A quick Google search found one other shoe repair shop in Benton County and two in Washington County. Walter said some do large jobs with heavy leather like saddle work, which he no longer does.

While other local shoe repair shops have fallen by the wayside (nearly two dozen since 2000) Walter's business has found sustained success in a field that has seen most of the jobs outsourced to China or other foreign nations.

"Around the year 2000 the business changed. … Nearly all of our shoes come from China now and they have a different method of shoe making which made it difficult for American's to keep the pace," Walter said. "It is a shame that so many jobs were lost in this transition. The biggest issue is the method in which the Chinese use to sew the sole to the shoe. A lot of the equipment used by guys in the states isn't made to repair a shoe made in China. But you have to keep up with the times."

Workforce statistics for 90-year-olds are virtually non-existent as the U.S. Census Bureau lumps population data in banded years, the oldest being 85 and up.

Walter is among 1.8 million men which comprise a tiny 1.2% of the U.S. population for just being alive at age 85. He and Dorothy are among 51,400 other Arkansans who are past age 85. There are no records for business owners or 90-year-olds who continue to work full-time.

Walter said he rarely takes a day off, but he and Dorothy do spend two weeks a year on vacation. The couple has traveled to seven different countries in Europe, as well as Canada and Thailand.

They also spent a summer visiting all 48 states in the continental U.S. One year Carl pushed for a extended three-week vacation, but could barely get though the trip for missing his shop, his wife said.

When Walter went to his last high school reunion he was just one of 12 men remaining from a graduating class of 130.

"Most of my friends are dead and were retired for twenty years before that, but I guess I am just not that kind of guy," said Walter. "I do love my job and I don't think I will be going to another high school reunion. … They are getting sort of depressing."