UNDER NEW MANAGEMENT: Clyde Lawrence, after 32 years as an employee, earlier this year bought Militello’s Fine Shoe Repair from the company’s founder, Fred Anthony Militello Sr. (Photo by Collin Richie)
Clyde Lawrence remembers when platform shoes were the trend. He’d polish and resole them regularly for female clients who flocked into Militello’s Fine Shoe Repair in droves back in 1976, the same year that a then-22-year-old Lawrence began his career with the reputable Baton Rouge cobbler.
In his 32 years with the business, he’s seen those same disco-era platforms make a rather unfortunate comeback. He’s also repaired once-trendy bubble-toe shoes—not to mention more than one pair of clown shoes.
Some of the work is more seasonal. During legislative sessions, it’s like clockwork: state lawmakers plopping into one of the two black chairs at the small store’s leftmost corner to have their shoes shined and polished. “Shoe Shines for $5,” a sign above the chairs advertises.
Trendy or classic, taking a pair of shoes to Militello’s for repair or to be shined and polished is something of a Baton Rouge tradition.
Like the trends, Lawrence’s time with the business has come and gone, only to come back again. Twice he’s left to pursue other opportunities—from 1988 to 1995 and, again, from 1997 to 2000—but he always comes back.
“When Mr. (Fred) Militello hired me, he told me that if he trained me in shoe repair, I would never have to look for a job again,” Lawrence says. “It’s just stuck with me.”
Little did he know that would mean someday running the establishment on his own.
Earlier this year, Lawrence and his wife, Jerri, bought the business from the retiring Fred Anthony Militello Sr. for “a little less than $500,000,” Lawrence says, making the longtime employee the store’s newest owner.
Now the 65-year-old Lawrence finds himself at the helm of a business he’s grown to master—a seemingly old-fashioned profession he feels is slowly regaining resonance with a younger audience.
Taking the reins
Since Lawrence took the reins in March, Militello’s has kept business as usual, raking in about $300,000 in annual revenues, with profit margins hovering around 25%. Business is usually better in the fall and winter, he’s quick to point out, with sales often dipping over the spring and summer months.
Lawrence, who clocks in some 70 hours a week, pondered the option of buying the business for two years, after his longtime boss—who was then nearing 80 years old—first approached him about the opportunity. He was initially hesitant. Age 63 at the time, what if he wanted to retire, too? Ultimately, after deliberating his options and recruiting Jerri to work with him, Lawrence seized the chance.
“I was planning on retiring, and I’ve never worked in this type of setting before,” Jerri Lawrence says. “But Clyde and I ride together, come in at the same time and work together to make sure the jobs are done in a timely manner, six days a week.”
Fred Militello started his eponymous shoe repair business in Morgan City in 1972, before moving it to Baton Rouge that same year. In 1973, Militello purchased equipment from Corby’s Shoe Repair, renaming the business and moving it from its Plank Road location to a new spot on Highland Road near the north gates of LSU.
Lawrence, meanwhile, came to the Capital Region from north Bossier Parish in search of a job at one of Baton Rouge’s chemical plants, where he heard workers made good money. But once he got here, he didn’t even apply for a job at a plant. Instead, he worked at a PayLess Shoe Source during the store’s “Easter rush,” a gig that lasted less than two months.
He then wandered into Militello’s Highland Road store, where Militello told Lawrence he would teach him if he wanted to learn. Over the years, Lawrence learned the ins and outs of shoe shining, stretching, fitting, waterproofing, reheeling, resoling and hardware replacing, as well as a few life lessons along the way. The business also evolved, moving to its current Corporate Boulevard location.
Jerri Lawrence suspects Militello saw something in her husband—perhaps his loyalty or work ethic—that led him to entrust and partially finance Clyde’s ownership of his established business.
“He’s been a mentor to me, almost like a father,” Clyde Lawrence says. “He straightened me out a few times when I was young and foolish.”
(Photo by Collin Richie)
“When Mr. Militello hired me, he told me that if he trained me in shoe repair, I would never have to look for a job again. It’s just stuck with me.”
—CLYDE LAWRENCE, owner, Militello’s Fine Shoe Repair
A ‘happy errand’
When he began with the business, Lawrence says the store was “busier than ever,” with the plant workers coming in after shifts to have their boots repaired. That’s changed in recent years, as most plants now supply their workers with boots.
Many locals, however, still find their niche in the shop. The one Lawrence now owns—a store sandwiched in a strip between Smashburger and Yogurtland—is always bustling with errand-running regulars.
Yogurtland manager Jennifer Harris says the strip mall’s parking lot starts filling up around 10 a.m. with people getting out of their cars to see the cobbler, a profession the 24-year-old didn’t think still existed before working next door to one.
Jim Brown, Louisiana’s former secretary of state and a 30-year Militello’s regular, says Lawrence has cultivated a loyal following, making each of his errands a personalized experience.
“Clyde is old Baton Rouge—he’s personable, he knows you,” Brown says. “He might ask me, ‘Who’s that fellow who just left?’ He gets to know his customers. It’s something you think of as being from years ago, since people don’t tend to do that today.”
Ann Edelman, a Militello’s client for the past 20-plus years, says she’s never considered another shoe repair shop. Most of her allegiance can be traced back to Lawrence, who she says has “meticulously” cared for her footwear, deep-cleaning her mud-caked fall boots and clipping new heel tips on her high heels, among various other services.
But her highest compliments revolve around Lawrence’s friendly demeanor and compassion for his customers, making her monthly Militello’s trips a “happy errand.”
One time, she brought in her favorite pair of shoes—aged strappy sandals with black piping on clear plastic acrylic—knowing they were beyond repair. After tinkering with the sandals, a sympathetic Lawrence told her he could help her orchestrate a “proper burial.”
“I was happy to give them to him,” she says. “He’s good about understanding how people get emotionally attached to those materials.”
Though most of his customers are baby boomers, he says millennials are starting to see the merits of conserving their leather goods. He’s noticed more 20- and 30-somethings coming into the shop, asking about repairs for their belts, purses and shoes.
As of now, Lawrence doesn’t foresee expanding his store. Instead, he plans to attract more millennials by upping the business’ advertising budget. He’s also focused on training his two recent hires in the craft of cobbling.
Today, Lawrence doesn’t worry about keeping up with the demands of running the business. In all his years working the industry, trends in shoe styles are really the only things he’s noticed change over time.
“They come and go, then they come back again,” says Lawrence.
He would know best.