Though we’re surrounded by cheap consumer goods that we’re more likely to toss than repair, there are still things we want to hold on to. When that happens, we can still turn to those that fix things for a living here in the Grand Forks area. Some are surviving but others are thriving.
Here are stories of four of them: a seamstress, a watchmaker, a vacuum cleaner repairman and a cobbler.
Business at Pins & Needle Tailoring is bustling, according to owner Shelly Wasylow.
Some societal changes have neutralized the throw-away and buy-new mentalities that have damaged repair shops over time, she said. One of the changes that have benefitted her clothing-repair business is the burgeoning online shopping.
“A lot more people are buying clothing online from businesses that don’t allow returns, so there are a lot of alterations to be made,” she said. “The other big change is that a lot of expensive jeans are in need of repair.”
She was referring to the so-called “distressed” jeans that are purchased with fashionable rips in place. But with wear, the rips grow too large and she closes the gaps.
Wasylow, 55, was a 7-year-old when she started making doll clothes on a battery-operated sewing machine under the tutelage of a great-aunt. Her interest came from a long line of seamstresses in her family, she said.
Pins & Needle previously operated out of Emerado, N.D., for 26 years before moving to Grand Forks.
Now, with a tape measure typically around her neck and six sewing machines at the ready, she works out of her strip-mall shop along South Washington Street. In need of alterations, tuxedoes, wedding dresses and prom dresses occupy the racks. The hangers also include pants in need of tapering, a parka awaiting a new zipper and a team jacket lacking the lettering of the athlete’s name.
There also are oddities that require her skill set, including the reattachment of a teddy bear’s head.
The job requires “loving sewing, not just liking it,” she said. “If you’re in it just to make a living, you will frustrate yourself.”
Emotional attachment plays a major role for businesses such as the Correct Time watch repair shop in the Grand Cities Mall in Grand Forks.
“People come in with a $25 quartz watch and spend $50 fixing it because of its sentimental value,” owner Wayne Miller said. “I also get a lot of old pocket watches that people want restored.”
An example of a recent sentimental-based repair, he said, was the restoration of a 1955 Bulova watch so it could be gifted to a granddaughter.
Miller, 69, has fixed watches for 48 years, the last 33 in Grand Forks, and plans to work a few more years. He learned the trade in St. Paul at a watch-making school, which has since closed.
He said his craft has suffered not only from the inexpensive, disposable watches that aren’t worth the cost of repairing, but also by the use of cell phones as a timepiece.
However, he has enough business to work 40 to 45 hours per week, he said. That’s partly because he has been the only certified master watchmaker in Grand Forks since the 1997 flood.
“Word of mouth is the only advertising I can afford,” he said. “The future? It’s going to the dogs.”
Repair shops have a history of being passed down to other family members. Such is the plan at Forx Vacuum at the Grand Cities Mall, where 61-year-old Bruce Davis is prepared to eventually hand the business over to son Tyler, 23.
A retail shop first, about 40 percent of revenue comes from repairs, Bruce Davis said. The proprietor started in the vacuum business by cold-calling on door-to-door sales in the 1980s.
“I would sometimes get invited in for supper,” he said.
He learned to do repairs from on-the-job training. Owner of one of two vacuum repair shops in Grand Forks, he averages four to five hours per day on repairs.
“Big stores don’t do service and don’t have parts,” Davis said. “We’re one of the dinosaurs who still repair things.
“There’s still some sentimental value out there, with people wanting to keep mom’s vacuum or their first vacuum after they were married. But it doesn’t happen as much as it used to.”
Still, he said, he gets enough business from the owners of modern vacuum cleaners, which aren’t as well made as they used to be.
Danny Spiros has witnessed the ups-and-downs of the shoe repair business since he was 10.
That’s how old he was when he started working as a shoeshine boy at his grandfather’s shop in Minot. At age 19, he started his own his own repair business, Service Shoe Shop, in Grand Forks. At 56, he’s still going as a cobbler, working with his sister, Debbie Meagher, who specializes on repairs other than footwear.
He said no shoe repair business is within 100 miles of his shop and North Dakota has only seven shops, compared with about 50 at its peak. That number likely will be even lower when he retires.
“I have nobody to take over for me here, which is a shame,” he said. “People will be able to make more money making fries at McDonald’s than they would here.”
Lack of business is not the problem, as recent customers were told that it would take a week before the repair job could be finished. Spiros said he has needed to keep his rates low because shoes made overseas are so inexpensive that “it’s often cheaper to buy new than repair them.”
His shop receives more business, he said, when the economy is sagging. When the economy is robust, customers have more money so they buy new.
The smell of shoe polish and glue is prominent in his shop in the Grand Cities Mall. Most of the work is fixing soles and heels on footwear, but repairs also include dolls, saddles, luggage and tents.
“You name it, we’ve fixed it,” Spiros said. “We don’t make a lot of money here, but every day I hear 20 times a day that we’re appreciated and needed.
“I sure would like someone to take over when I’m done, but I don’t think that’s going to happen.”