MIDDLE TOWNSHIP — The daughter of a skilled merchant who opened a successful and long-running shoe-repair shop in Cape May Court House early in the last century has closed the business because the modern world has superseded it.
Imogene Young Coldwell, 85, has put away her tools and equipment after 72 years as a shoe repairer and owner of her father’s Young’s Shoe Repair Shop at 3 Mechanic St, in the heart of the historic mercantile district.
She did not become the full-fledged owner of the shop until her father, Charles, died in 1982. He had whetted her early interest in the trade when she was 13 and soon to enter Middle Township High School.
As she reminisced about her colorful and steadfast past, Imogene said the time had come to lock the doors for good. Customers don’t visit as frequently as in the past, simply because shoe manufacturers emphasize longevity in their work products, and when it is time for repairs, it is cheaper to buy new shoes, she says.
Early on, though, in far different times, as her education and grades advanced, her father wanted her to become a doctor, but she was so caught up in repairing the soles, tongues and heels of peoples' shoes that she forsook a possible career of repairing the human counterparts of peoples soles, tongues and heels.
Coldwell, among six children born to Ida Martha and Charles Young, was indoctrinated into the surgery of shoes by her father in her early teens. “My father built a shoe-shine box and taught me how to polish peoples shoes for five cents or so without getting polish on their clothes,” she recalled. The box is still on exhibit in the window of the closed store.
Then came the really hard part. Dad introduced her to the somewhat complicated machinery and equipment used for shoe repair. But Imogene learned and her father began to realize he had a daughter whose career was footed for success.
She helped him in his store and became his full-time assistant after she earned her high school diploma in 1950. He died in 1982 when Imogene was 49, and she took over the business.
Imogene and her shoe repairing have become so well known in this area that few long-time residents have not brought his or her footwear to her shop for repair. She cannot give an estimate of how many shoes whose lives she expanded for future walking time. But when pressed, she laughed and pointed to the bank’s huge parking lot across the street from her history-laden closed building where shoes once were in abundance.
“I guess,” she says, “if you put them altogether, all the shoes I’ve worked on would fill that parking lot.”
Not all her shoe life was spent in Cape May Court House, however. After she married George Coldwell, she followed him to Alaska, where he had been assigned as a member of the Air Force in the mid-1950s. Limited though it was, she kept up her chosen career by repairing some of the GIs' frozen footwear.
“I didn’t want to see soldiers saluting their officers while they were standing there not straight up because something was wrong with their shoes,” she said.
Soon she was back in her regular environment at Court House, away from icebergs, igloos and dog sleds. Canines, however, became an influence on her career, indirectly.
“Dogs, I discovered, like to chew on shoes,” she said. “They considered them the best thing since bones, and sometimes when people brought their teeth-tattered shoes to my shop, I sadly had to tell them there’s not much I could do. I suggested they hide their shoes in a closet and wear sneakers that were not as dog tasty instead.”
Last year, as Imogene approached 85, she was hospitalized. She recovered, but she soon realized as fewer customers came to her doorsteps that something was in the wind for her in addition to those blowing from the nearby ocean. The professional shoemakers were manufacturing footwear that endured so long it was cheaper to buy new shoes than fix the old ones. So she called it quits.
“Enough was enough,” she told herself. “I decided I wanted more time to walk in shoes than to fix them.”
From the outside, the shop at 3 Mechanic Street, just a few steps from the corner at Route 9, is still very much in evidence. She owns the building, which is shared by a jewelry store, and she says she hasn’t decided what course to take with its future.
In the doorway’s window she has posted a handwritten farewell message that succinctly and appreciatively tells it all.
”Closed for business, “ she informs her would-be remaining customers. “Thank you.”