Ares Shoe Repair has been around a long time but now there’s a new guy inside.
In March, Arakel Arakelian stepped behind the glass windows of the ancient-looking tiny shop that for forty years has kept Beacon Hillers well heeled. He may be new at 84 Charles Street but he’s no novice – he’s been stitching and shining footwear, purses, belts and more for 48 years.
Like so many skilled craftsmen who pass their profession from generation to generation, Ara learned the art of shoemaking and repair from his father in Lebanon, where the Armenian family settled after being forced from their homeland in Turkey at the time of the 1915 Armenian genocide.
“Armenians are not known for being educated. They did not have the means,” said Ara. “Instead they are great craftsmen –tailors, shoemakers, pan makers.”
Ara began his apprenticeship with his father at age 6 because, he said, children that age didn’t go outside to play because they had few toys. “I had a windup horse with a cowboy on it. Once a year I would take it out, play with it for a while, and put it back on the shelf. That was my only toy.”
Instead, by the time he was 13 or 14 he was well on his career path, able to work on some of the easier machines such as one used for shaving and edging leather. He continued to gain experience in the shop, where he remembers meeting other Armenian families such as the mother from Jordan who occasionally stopped by to purchase shoes for her sons and daughters, including a 12-year-old named Elizabeth.
In 1972, when Ara was 25, he and his father decided to visit his mother, her stepson and other family members who in 1969 had come to the Watertown area. With its surrounding towns of Waltham and Belmont, Watertown was and still is a major center of the Armenian diaspora in the United States. It was a comfortable place for immigrants like Ara and his father, he said, because everyone shared the love of the homeland they had lost and the Armenian foods, culture and language.
“When I came to America, I found a lovely lady accompanying my mother,” said Ara. “I said ‘You are Elizabeth, the 12 year old girl from my hometown all grown up! I came to America to see my mother but if you’ll marry me, I’ll stay.’ ”
Apparently Elizabeth agreed because she is often seen today at his side at the shoe repair shop. “I do the work on the shoes and she comes in, polishes them up and talks with the customers,” said Ara.
The couple raised two children. Their daughter, who earned her masters degree, was the first in the family to earn a degree. She and her husband have two children and live in Marblehead. Their son graduated from Northeastern and will be married in October. Ara, who could not speak English when he arrived in America, now speaks four languages besides Armenian – Arabic, Turkish, French, English and is learning Spanish, because of its important role in American society.
Soon after arriving in the area, Ara and his father opened a shoe repair shop in Belmont. Later on, opportunity brought Ara to Federal Street, where he ran two shops for many years. He sold those businesses three years ago because of painful back problems that made it difficult to work. After two major surgeries and much exercise, he felt well enough to purchase the Charles Street business with all its contents from Michael Demirgian, a Romanian Armenian who had operated it for 24 years after buying it from its namesake Ares.
During his many years as a cobbler, he has learned all aspects of the craft. He is surrounded by tools and machines, like trimmers, skivers, heel wheels, McKay and Landis stitchers. But his most important tools are his hands.
He prides himself that he has never told a customer he couldn’t solve his footwear problem. A missionary once came to his shop and told him the story of an 18 year old girl from the poor state of Moldova near the Ukraine who had never walked because one leg was about a foot shorter than the other. He figured out a way to build a shoe that enabled her to walk for the first time.
“Another time a customer come in with a cane,” he said. “I asked what was wrong with him. He replied that his toes were rotten from diabetes and that he couldn’t walk. I asked him to take his shoes off. I took them in and did what I thought I should do. He put the shoes on and started walking normally. He hugged and kissed me and said he’d never been able to walk as well.”
He has found Beacon Hill to be a good place to be and particularly enjoys meeting its families. “You meet the son in the morning when he drops off a shoe and the father in the evening when he picks it up, “ he said. “They are good customers. They are happy someone can help them out.”
Here there is more work for him. “People walk everywhere, and when they walk, they wear their shoes down. And the brick sidewalks, they’re my friend. High heels get stuck between the groves. This pair of shoes, for example, has been in three times since March to have its heels repaired,” he said, pointing to a pair of red stilettos on the counter.
Ara said the shoe business is recession-proof because, like food, people always need shoes. Due to the current high prices of women’s leather bags, more and more customers are asking him to restore them rather than purchase new ones. He picked up a large black Burberry bag valued at about $1500, explaining that for $150 he’d give it new life by washing its lining, making a new handle, mending a tear and giving it a good polish.
Like the two owners of the shop before him, he said he’ll be around for a long time, until “my eyes don’t see anymore.”