I went into town this week for a coffee at the small and dearly loved cafe across the street from the shoe repair shop, run for years by a Russian guy from St. Petersburg — Russia, not Florida — named Mike. I suspect it wasn’t his Russian name, but it worked.
When I started freelancing and had few clients, and too much time on my hands, I’d sit with him for an hour and chat. We both loved to travel and he regaled me with stories of his native city, pointing out its best features on the huge map on his wall. I learned about his son and his wife, knew that he lived in New Jersey and had once been a white-collar executive in Russia. But his English was poor and he never managed to improve it enough to make that transition here, he told me, so he opened a shoe repair shop in our New York suburban town, to which he commuted every morning.
One of the reasons I so love my little town — having grown up in the big cities of Toronto and Montreal — are the store and business owners who keep it real. Mrs. Reali’s tailor shop is now (ugh) an art gallery, as is Alma Snape Florist. Who needs that much art? But Gregg still runs the hardware store his grandfather founded in 1904 and Hassan sells amazing cheese and Aqeel is a helpful pharmacist. I still miss Nikos, the gentle, talented jeweler who worked with Donna Karan — and who made to order a ring for the sweetie that I designed.
Of such men, and women, are communities made.
I was thinking of taking in my summer sandals this week. But Mike is gone. He had told me a year ago he wanted to sell his business, but there isn’t a stampede of people with his excellent skills willing to do physical labor. Now the shop is closed, a sign on the door telling us he retired May 29.
I’ll miss his cheerful hellos, his voicemail reminders — “I fix-it your shoes” — and his blaring Russian-language radio.
Dasvidiana, Mike. Spasibo!
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