When Peter Kemel was eight years old, his grandfather began teaching him the skills that a cobbler needs to learn, including cleaning, gluing and dyeing shoe leather.
“It was fun, I loved the hammering best,” says Kemel, who, for the last 21 years, has used those skills to give new lives to the shoes of grateful customers at his shop, Model Shoe Renew. Kemel is the third owner of this shoe repair outpost, which opened in Berkeley over 70 years ago.
Kemel is proud of this store, where, besides repairing shoes, he stocks several lines of well-crafted new shoes made in Germany, Italy, Denmark, Australia and the US. Lining the walls are shoe creams, sprays and dyes in every imaginable color, leather wallets and purses, socks, shoe stretchers, orthotic inserts, toe spacers, laces, belts — even a foot bath.
The cobbler shop where Kemel’s grandfather, father and brothers worked was in Byblos, Lebanon.
“There were 14 kids in my family, and we ate a lot,” said Kemel. “So my father also raised bees to sell the honey. He had 400 hives. Every year, there would be a line of customers coming up the stairs to our house: doctors, policemen, politicians, generals. Everyone knew it was the best.”
Kemel also carries on this family tradition, although in a scaled-down version. He has many hives in Concord and San Pablo and sells his honey, Pete’s Gold Backyard Honey, at Whole Foods. In 1996, Kemel was living in Lebanon with his wife and young daughter. His wife had lived in the US previously and wanted to move back. He agreed and they moved to Orlando, Florida. But he hated it there.
“The weather is cuckoo, and the people were always saying , ‘Quick, close the door, the mosquitoes will come in!’ This is life?” After six months, he returned to Lebanon, but three years later, the couple agreed on a move to California, where one of Kemel’s sisters lived, and they settled in Concord. “Ahh, the weather in the Bay Area is just like Byblos, says Kemel.” He found a shoe repair store to buy at the Sun Valley Mall in Concord, but was not happy there.
“Customers would bring in cheap shoes they had bought at Payless, and when I told them it would cost $25 to repair, they complained,” he said.
In 2000, after he bought Model Shoe Renew, Kemel realized how special Berkeley citizens were.
“They buy good quality, and they hate to waste. They love their Birkenstocks, so we resole and recork them.”
Besides shoes and boots, Kemel and his team also repair and renew purses, belts, and luggage.
Much-loved shoes are repaired, whatever their state
During this reporter’s visit a customer came in to the store with a pair of short brown leather boots and complained that they hurt her feet. Kemel said he could stretch them. The customer was doubtful about spending the necessary money. Kemel echoed what the signs in his store proclaim, “Our work is 100% guaranteed.” He always gives his card with his personal email and phone number to customers in case there are problems. He said he treats his customers like they are guests in his home, as Lebanese culture expects.
Another customer, Berkeley native, Sam Pierce, brought in a pair of tan work boots for Kemel to resole. Pierce said he had been coming to Model Shoe Renew for 20 years. He just retired after two decades in the US Air Force, so he knows a good pair of leather boots and how expert care can make them last a lifetime.
“Over the years, Peter has fixed my soles and zippers, and, when I needed it, a professional spit shine,” he said. “I have one pair of Danner’s boots that he has resoled eight times. If he sees you walking in ‘funny’, he’ll figure out what kind of sole or insert you need. Plus, he has such a positive attitude.”
The exact history of Model Shoe Renew remains a bit cloudy. Judy Washington, Kemel’s second-in-command, has been working in this store for 23 years, longer than he has owned it. In 1978, she attended a Berkeley CETA training program in shoe repair.
“I wanted to learn a trade and always liked working with my hands,” says Washington. “I was the only girl in the program.” She was hired in 1978 by Ted Goto, Model Shoe Renew’s second owner, and helped him move it from its former location next to Spat’s to the present site, a block away, Then she worked for many years at one of Goto’s other shops in El Cerrito. She came back to Berkeley location in 1998. Kemel quips: “She came with the store, when I bought it in 2000.”
“He doesn’t judge your shoes. If you love them, he’ll repair them.” — Mary Lou Duran
“Goto owned six shoe repair shops around the East Bay, which he bought and sold,” said Washington. “This was the last one he held onto for 34 years. I know he bought it from someone named Tom and it’s at least 70 years old now.” She admits the shop was dark, dingy and cramped until Kemel bought it. “He took down some walls and opened it up and made it cheery,” she said. “And he added all the new shoes and supplies.”
Kensington resident Mary Lou Duran brought in a pair of black leather boots and asked Kemel to replace the heel. He pointed out to her how the sole is also worn down and said he’ll replace both for $75. “Okay!” She says smiling, “You’re the shoe boss!”
Duran said she has been coming to the shop for Kemel’s good service for 20 years.
“He’s willing to listen, and he doesn’t judge your shoes. If you love them, he’ll repair them,” she said.
Kemel tells Duran the story of a young woman who came into his shop with her grandmother’s vintage boots and tearfully reported how another cobbler told her just to throw them in the trash. “That’s not right,” says Kemel. “Family things have great sentimental value.” He fixed them.
Pandemic forces closure, devastating losses
The pandemic has had a devastating effect on Model Shoe Renew. The shop had to close for several months. “When we finally re-opened in July,” said Kemel “the customers didn’t come back. They were afraid to go out. We made about $15 a day.” Kemel confesses that he used every penny of his retirement money to keep the store afloat. “If I tell you how much we lost, you will cry: $700,000.”
During the months it were closed, Kemel and a friend installed a ventilation system that draws fresh air from the roof into the store. He also keeps the front and back doors open and has several ceiling fans operating all the time.
“The air is super fresh,” he said.
Prior to the pandemic, he had eight full-time employees, but he had to let them all go. Now he has four part-time workers and has only gotten back about 40% of his normal business. He is adamant about the plight of small businesses and how neither side is supporting them. “I see them give money to other countries, while small businesses here are hurting badly.”
One aspect of Kemel’s business that took off in the pandemic is his “online service” that accepts items to repair from people all over the country, in Ohio, Michigan, even Hawaii and Alaska. Customers send an email with a photo of their shoes or bag, agree on a service and a price and mail in their shoes. After they are repaired, they are sent back.
Last week, a woman entered the shop slowly with the help of a cane. With effort, she took off a battered pair of black, open-toe, support sandals and gave them to Kemel. He saw that they needed new Velcro fastenings and could also use a new sole. They agreed on a price. Even though he had told every other customer who just brought in their shoes for repairs that it will take a week, he told this woman her shoes will be ready tomorrow. She thanked him, gingerly slipped her feet into a thin pair of flip-flops and shuffled out.
“I know her; this is her only pair of shoes,” Kemel said, after she is gone. “Like I tell my kids, anything you want to do in life, do it from your heart.”