The Shoe Repairman

Manuel Nunez is wearing wingtips. They are the color of caramel and polished to you-can-see-your-face-in-them perfection.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Manuel learned shoemaking at his father’s feet.

I know this because I look down when Manuel tells me about them.

Manuel, who spends his 8 a.m.-to-8-p.m. days standing while saving soles at Hong’s Shoe Repair, doesn’t wear them to work.

He has dressed up for me and my camera.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Hong’s is at 22-60 31st St. by the subway.

His work boots – black behemoths by Red Wing – are in the back, ready to receive his feet.

Manuel, whose hands are leopard spotted with black smudges, has been in the trade since he was wearing baby shoes.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Manuel’s workbench.

His father was a cobbler in the Andean valley city of Pinllo near Ambato in Ecuador.

The shop was in their home, and Manuel, the youngest of four, couldn’t help but help out.

“We were miserable poor,” he says. “My father was more interested in drinking than in buying food for the family. Sometimes, I had to go out into the street to ask for potatoes to cook.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
The cash register is ancient.

When Manuel was 12, he quit school and joined his father full time in the shop, where he learned to make shoes.

“I had to help make money,” he says.

Once he learned the craft from heel to toe, he started making shoes with his brother, who had his own shop.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Manuel repairing a handbag.

“I was working 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. six days a week,” he says. “So when I was 26, I came to America for a better life. My sister and one brother were already here.”

For a couple of years, Manuel worked two jobs.

He spent his days in a Manhattan shoe factory and his nights cleaning office buildings.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Manuel’s shoe-repair supplies.

Then he landed a job in a Manhattan shoe-repair shop, and when it had financial difficulties, a friend told him about Hong’s.

Hong’s, slender as an AAAA and long in the last, stands in the shadow of the Ditmars subway stop next to the viaduct.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
High heels hanging high.

For some eight decades it has been a high-heel to high-tops hospital.

Manuel, unassuming and accommodating, doesn’t know the exact year it opened, but he does know that it was started by an Italian guy named Tony.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Manuel took over in 1993.

And, Manuel is happy to say, it hasn’t changed much since Tony replaced that first heel.

Manuel, who took over in 1993 after being an employee for a couple of years, still paints the front door in the red, white and green stripes of the Italian flag.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Standing in line for repairs.

And he continues to use the original equipment, which includes an ancient Singer sewing machine encrusted in glue.

“I’m passionate about old things,” he says. “At home, I have a collection of tube radios and a Victrola.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Finished orders are tagged and bagged at the front of the shop.

He pulls up a video on his 6-year-old smartphone.

“I have 17 of the old records,” he says as it plays. “I have tangoes. I have Frank Sinatra. I listen to them on my day off.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Manuel began working full time when he was 12.

The bold red sign out front wearing the men’s black dress shoes still says Hong’s.

That’s on purpose.

“I never changed it because I want to remember forever the guy who gave me the chance to work,” he says.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
The Singer has been in use since the shop opened some 80 years ago.

In the beginning, business was so good that Manuel hired a helper.

But for the last couple of years, things have been slow.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
A cobbler’s shoe anvil.

So Manuel’s longtime girlfriend, Brenda Moncada, serves as his assistant.

“She cooks me lunch and brings it when she comes in the afternoon,” Manuel says. “She’s from Honduras. We met in New York.”

The shop, whose only luxuries are a window air conditioner and an electric space heater, is filled with footwear in need of lots of TLC.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
The sign is from the second owner.

Manuel, who hammers, glues and stitches to the sound of classic rock on his radio, bags and tags the finished shoes, leather jackets, belts and handbags and hangs them near the front.

Simple repairs, such as replacing a heel, start at $5.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Kitten heels in for repairs.

More complicated operations, such as changing a sole, can run $40 to $70.

Manuel’s never counted the number of shoes he finishes per day; the idea strikes him as funny.

At those prices, though, it has to be a lot.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Manuel works six days a week.

All he knows is that he’s successful if he has enough money to pay his bills and the rent on the Elmhurst apartment he and Brenda share.

“I never get tired of the work,” he says.

He doesn’t seem to mind that he doesn’t get much time off.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
A vintage poster by the front counter.

“I have never been back to Ecuador to see my oldest brother,” he says, “because I cannot afford to close the shop.”

He does kick back on Saturdays: He leaves at 6 p.m. instead of 8.

And he takes Sundays off.

“I don’t like to stay home,” he says. “I take trips on the subway and I walk, walk, walk.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
He says he’ll never retire.

It’s an odd hobby for a guy who’s always on his feet.

There is only one thing Manuel, who is 53, knows for sure that he never wants to do: retire.

“I love my shop, my job, my customers,” he says. “I think I’m going to die here.”

A woman comes in and drops off a pair of Gucci boots.

Manuel, smiling, unlaces his wingtips and grabs his work boots.

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at; @nancyruhling on Twitter; nruhling on Instagram,,

Copyright 2017 by Nancy A. Ruhling