Volume 77 / Number 30 - Dec. 27 - Jan.2, 2007
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

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Village photo by Elizabeth Proitsis

Angelo Fontana in his shoe-repair shop at 159 Second Ave.

Worn down by rent woes, shoe store is getting boot

By Bonnie Rosenstock

Angelo Fontana has been saving soles in the East Village for more than 40 years. The address of his shoe repair shop is 159 Second Avenue, but it is geographically situated at the southwest bend of Stuyvesant St.

His face furrows in concentration as he creates new shoe bottoms, shores up sagging sides, molds new life into favorite footwear that would otherwise have had to have been tossed out a long time ago.

In his native Palermo, Italy, Fontana was a real artisan, making shoes by hand. When he came to the East Village in 1962, there was no market for handmade shoes, so he became the guy who repaired them.

“I had to do something to make a living,” he recalled, his Sicilian accent still in evidence. “This was easy for me.”

His first shop was on 11th St. and Second Ave. Back then, he lived on E. 12th St., but now commutes daily from Staten Island. In 1980, the store moved to its present location.

The four bright-orange plastic chairs for those waiting for emergency repairs are in stark contrast to the otherwise earth-toned dusty ambience. A portable TV with rabbit ears sits blaring atop a scratched glass display case containing shoelaces and real shoe polish, but no shine sponges, which he dismisses as unworthy for him to sell. A chipped wooden case is lined with shelves full of shoes and boots; but many repairs sit in plastic bags on the floor on his work side of the peeling customer counter.

Even without the numbered blue ticket that has been recycled from customer to customer, he can just look at you and remember what you brought in. Designer shoes mingle with work boots, as Uptowners make the trek south to avail themselves of his expertise. Just the other day, he put rubber soles on two pairs of $485 Guccis.

“You can’t tell. It’s like they just came from the factory,” he said, proudly.

Fontana, 75, with sparse white hair, rimless glasses and leathery shoe polish-stained hands, isn’t ready to quit working. But his lease expires at the end of December, and the landlord wants to up the rent from an already-steep $4,000 a month from a raise just nine months ago to an unworkable $5,500 per month. So Fontana will be forced into “early” retirement, a prospect that he does not relish.

“I would like to stay another 10 years, well maybe five years,” he stated. “I’m used to working all my life. I don’t want to stop now. I don’t know what I’ll do. I’m not the kind of person who sits and watches TV all day. I like to be active,” he said, demonstrating his spryness with a little leg action. Then he winced, because his left leg hurts, and he admitted that he has been putting off an operation.

If he could, he would find another shop in the area because he loves the neighborhood, but rents everywhere are sky-high.

“Soon there won’t be any professionals left,” he predicted. “No more shoemakers, tailors — all gone. People now don’t know nothing,” he declared.

His loyal customers echo his dismay.

“He’s not only an excellent shoemaker, he’s the shoemaker,” stressed Marilyn Appleberg, emphasizing the “the” to indicate Fontana’s incredible skill. Appleberg, president of the Tenth and Stuyvesant Street Block Association, added, “He loses money because when he does preventative things to my shoes, I don’t need him as much for repairs.”

She pointed out that when the Tribeca Film Festival needed a shoemaker for their commercial, they came here to film him.

“He’s so much more than a shoemaker. He’s a community presence, the last of a vanishing breed,” stated Appleberg. “To have lost the 2nd Ave. Deli and other neighborhood stalwarts, it’s getting harder and harder to distinguish this community from others.”

Fontana will have to vacate at the end of February, after being granted a two-month reprieve, so he can alert his customers.

“I am trying to convince myself that nothing lasts forever. That’s the way I will get through this,” he said.

Meanwhile, the tailor Michael (Misha) Alter, Fontana’s neighbor just to the east of his store, who shares the same address and work ethic, is on pins and needles, waiting for the other shoe to drop. His lease expires in July and he will probably be notified in May what his fate is. Alter, 65, has been in the neighborhood for almost 29 years, or as long as the native Russian has been in the United States. Before this space, which he has been in for 10 years, Alter had a dry-cleaning business at Second Ave. and Fourth St., which he sold in 2000. He currently pays $2,200 per month, plus real estate taxes, which works out to $3,400 a month.

Alter does all the tailoring by hand or sewing machine and sends out the dry cleaning and laundry. He noticed an increase in his laundry business due to the closure of the laundromat on Third Ave. between 10th and 11th Sts., where a bar is rumored to be opening.
Maybe Alter will find a locale in Staten Island, where he lives, or retire.

“What can I do?” he asked. “I’m a tailor. I can find work.”

He is hopeful that he can stay but is also being realistic.

“The landlord can’t do much with just Angelo’s space. Maybe NorthFork will take over the two spaces. We need a bank on all four corners,” he joked, referring to the fact that Chase occupies the southeast corner of 10th St. and Second Ave. and NorthFork is on the southwest corner, separated from the tailor shop and shoe store only by the building entrance to No. 159.

Will the cramped NorthFork swallow up these two storefront spaces? The bank manager denied this, stating they have enough room. But as rumors continue to fly, who would bank on it?


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