After 50 years, shoe repair man still has heart and sole

by Len Lear
Posted 9/25/20

His customers would no doubt all agree that Willie Alston, 68, has a lot of sole. “Mr. Willie,” as his customers call him, has been the co-owner (along with Naeem Iddeen) of Ace Shoe …

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After 50 years, shoe repair man still has heart and sole

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His customers would no doubt all agree that Willie Alston, 68, has a lot of sole. “Mr. Willie,” as his customers call him, has been the co-owner (along with Naeem Iddeen) of Ace Shoe Repair at 20 E. Mt. Airy Ave. since 2012. All told, however, the 1971 graduate of Bok Technical High School in South Philly (that building is no longer a high school but is now used for fundraising events, weddings, etc.) is now celebrating 50 years as a shoe repair expert, including 19 years at Carman's Shoe Repair in Chestnut Hill before opening Ace.

Talk to anyone in Mt. Airy or Chestnut Hill who has taken shoes, a bag or belt to Willie for repairs, and he/she will tell you how well the job was done and at a fair price. Here is a typical comment on yelp.com, the nation's primary customer review business website. This one is from Mt. Airy resident Eric W. Clay:

“I highly recommend this place. They have to be one of the best shoe cobblers in the entire city. I brought in my favorite pair of shoes. (I wear them daily; they had lots of wear.) Sole of the shoes had several large holes, and the leather was separated from the sides of the shoe. The owners were really friendly and told me what they would replace, and they charged me a fair rate, given the amount of work they needed to do on the shoes. They returned the shoes in the promised time, and when I picked them up, they literally looked like brand new! Their work and dedication are top notch. I recommend anyone in Mt. Airy, Germantown and Chestnut Hill to use these guys. They are the best.”

After graduating from Bok in 1971, Willie went to work for United Shoe Repair at 21st and Sansom Streets in center city. He left after three years and later worked for the Happy Cobbler Shoe Repair Shop in Suburban Station and one called Moonlight before opening his own place at Germantown and Butler Street in Germantown. Then 19 years at Carman's until 2012.

Willie works six days a week, 10 to 12 hours on his feet each day, tough on his 68-year-old body.

Willie lives near the sports stadiums in South Philly and goes to and from Mt. Airy every work day by public transportation. “The subway is fast,” he said, “so it does not take that long to go back and forth. The subway means no headaches. I do not have to deal with crazy drivers on the road.” Some days, when the work is really backed up, Willie will leave for work at 4 a.m. because “there are no interruptions at that time.”

Needless to say, when the pandemic hit in mid-March, business tanked, but Willie had a guardian angel he did not know he had. Feeling bad for him, Shani Newton, a long-time customer of Willie's and the owner of Dolly’s Boutique & Consignment, 6778 Germantown Ave., posted the following message on her Facebook page:

“This is my buddy Willie, owner of Ace Shoe Repair at 20 E. Mt. Airy Ave., right near Germantown & Mt. Airy Aves. The pandemic has really hurt his business in terms of customer traffic. Many business owners for various reasons have not been fortunate to receive support through grants and loans. Friends, I’m asking you to go in your closets and take Willie all of your shoes, sneakers, belts and bags that need cleaning or repairs.”

“All of a sudden, new people were contacting me,” said Willie. “It got bigger and bigger. I did not even know Shani had done it. I don't do Facebook myself. Business came in so fast that I usually get people's shoes and bags fixed in one day. Now it's two or three days. One white guy from Mt. Airy came by and gave me $700. He had only been here once. That one time he said he was $10 short, and I said 'That's OK.' Another guy had $20 of work done, and he gave me $50. It's amazing!”

Willie, whose wife died three years ago, has three children and 14 grandchildren. Unlike many people who have to travel long distances to visit their loved ones, Willie's mom, brother, sister and aunt all live on the same block he does. “It's a nice neighborhood,” he said. “I live a simple life. I go to work, go home, have a cocktail and I'm good. I am happy every day. My mom taught me to work, work, work, and that's what I do.”

For more information, call 215-248-1359. Len Lear can be reached at lenlear@chestnuthilllocal.com

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