A cobbler, just like his father

An outside view of Leo-cobbler Shoes and Handbags Repair Service shop owned by the family. Photo: Ghazali Bujang
Douglas shows the various types of shoe soles that are imported from Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and Thailand. Photo: Ghazali Bujang

If you want to repair your shoes or handbag, where do you  go?

In Kuching City, you can go to a cobbler on the five-foot way or a cobbler shop.

Leo-cobbler Shoes and Handbags Repair Service, located at an old shophouse at Jalan Ang Cheng Ho, is a cobbler shop which repairs not only shoes but also handbags and luggage.

Established in 1997, it is currently run by a second-generation cobbler, Douglas Leong, 39, who is assisted by his wife, Janet Hee, 38.

The shop has a shoe repairing machine imported from the Netherland which is still in good shape despite having been used for nearly 28 years.

Douglas is continuing the legacy of his father, Leong Thian Hin, 74, who retired from managing the shop and mending shoes eight years ago.

When Douglas’s father was working as a cobbler, his mother, Chin Ah Leck would help around with the stitching. Now both of them have left the business to their son.

How it all started

Douglas said his father opened a cobbler and laundry shop in Padungan in 1997 before moving the shop to Jalan Datuk Wee Kheng Chiang.

“After 10 years, we moved to where we are now at Jalan Ang Cheng Ho. However, we dropped the laundry business and fully focus on repairing shoes and bags now,” he said.

Douglas explained that  his father decided to start a cobbler shop after travelling to Singapore where he saw many cobbler shops.

“So, my father started hiring street cobblers to work with him, and from then, learnt to mend shoes,” he said.

Douglas grinds the bottom of a shoe on the shoe repairing machine, which is his personal favourite tool to work with in the shop. Photo: Ghazali Bujang

Douglas added that before his father became a cobbler, he held many jobs — from being a tractor mechanic at Tenaga Nasional Berhad (TNB) to running a coffee shop and distributing medical supplies for government hospitals.  

“I started to help to manage the shop in 2009 after I was retrenched by a logistic company,” he said with a smile.

Sharing his experience on the first day of the job, Douglas said, “My father taught me how to handle customers and said I should always tell the truth and consult them before fixing any shoes.

 “I learned my public relations skills from my dad  and the stitching techniques from my mom.

“It is quite interesting to be a cobbler. Every day, there will be different shoes and bags to repair and I need to think how to fix them,” he said.

It was not easy for Douglas to mend shoes at first  and it took him about four years to master the art of repairing shoes, bags  and luggage.

“Sometimes the cost of repair  is as much as the price of a new pair of shoes. I let my customers know about this and let them decide whether they want to repair their shoes or not.

“Some customers are willing to pay for the high repair cost because the shoes or bags have a sentimental value. These had been given to them by their parents or grandparents,” he said.

Fixing an RM8,000 pair of shoes

The cost of repairing each pair of shoes, bag or luggage varies, depending on the extent of repair,   the materials used  and workmanship.

“The lowest charge will be RM8 and the highest can go up from RM200 to RM500,” said Douglas, adding that it took him up to two to three hours to repair a shoe.

He said some shoe repairs were expensive because he used quality rubber and non-slip rubber soles which could last up to more than 10 years.

“We also do shoe modifications for those who had their legs operated. One leg may be shorter due to an accident, so the modification is to help them walk more comfortably and reduce limping,” he said.

His customers comprise men and women who usually send their branded shoes which need to be repaired and maintained every year.

“I have once repaired an Italian handmade branded pair of shoes that cost RM8,000,” said Douglas.    

Among the  expensive bags that he has repaired are those belonging to the Gucci, Hermes and Louis Vuitton.

“We normally advise shoe collectors to wear their shoes often instead of storing them in cardboard boxes. Shoes  kept this way will be damaged very fast due to the lack of air circulation and other environmental factors,” he said.

Douglas shows a Louis Vuitton bag which he has repaired. Photo: Ghazali Bujang

Challenges in the business

For Douglas, every business has its challenges. For him, there are always  new shoe designs in the market to study  so that he knows how to repair them well.  

“We need to repair them in a way the customer will be able to accept our workmanship and make sure the shoes look nice after repair,” he said.

Another challenge that Douglas’ shop faced was a drop in sales during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Douglas said his  sales had dropped 50 percent since the pandemic last year.

“Before the pandemic, we would generate an income between RM15,000 and RM20,000  a month and minus the expenses that would be around RM10,000, we would make a gross profit of RM5,000 or more,” he said.

Besides  local customers,   tourists  would visit his  shop before the pandemic.

Now that inter-district travel is being allowed, the shop has started to receive more items for repair starting this month.

“We are slowly starting to get busy now and in a day, we receive an average of 10 to 12 shoes for repair,” said Douglas.

Keeping the business afloat

To keep his business going, Douglas and his wife continue to improve their workmanship.

“Here, at the shop, 50 percent of the repairs are done by hand, while for the rest, we use machines such as sewing machine, shoe press machine, and grinding machine,” he said.

Asked whether the shoe repair industry would survive in the next few decades, Douglas said that people still needed cobblers to repair their shoes or bags.

“There is a difference between a cobbler shop and a shop selling shoes. People will still go to the cobbler to repair shoes or bags they are sentimental about.

“Even those buying branded items from bundle shops will still need to send them to cobblers for repair,” he said.

Douglas promotes his services on the Leo Cobber Facebook page.

A shoe stretching machine that is still functioning. Photo: Ghazali Bujang

Plans to expand the shop

Douglas repairs shoes, bags, and luggage while his wife assists in repairing bags. The shop has another staff who specialises in repairing of shoes only.

“We will look into hiring more staff and probably expanding our shop when the business picks up again,” he said.

“Hiring shoe repairers is not that easy now. They have to be interested and be trained properly.

Douglas has been a cobbler for almost 13 years and is happy with what he is doing now.  

Leo Cobbler operates on Monday to Friday from 8am to 5pm, Saturday from 8am to 3pm, and is closed on Sunday and public holidays. The shop can be contacted at 082-419823.

Shoes which need to be repaired and those which are already repaired. Photo: Ghazali Bujang