HAVANA TIMES, August 16 — It had just turned 5:00 p.m. as I had made it to the corner running. That was where the shoe repairer sits, and I was worried that he had closed or was about to leave. But as it turned out he was still there hard at work.
“My schedule is from 9:00 in the morning to 6:00 in the evening, but today I’m working till 7:00,” he explained.
In general, the customer will leave the article with him that they want repaired (shoes, a handbag, a backpack…) and they’ll pick it up the next day.
After much insistence, I succeeded in getting Ariel, the shoe repairer, to agree to fix my backpack before the end of that same day.
“Come back at 6:30,” he told me.
I left after paying him in advance and I returned later at the agreed upon time. But since I still had to wait for him to fix a pair of tennis shoes before he could get to my backpack, he offered me a seat. And since I’d have to remain there for several minutes, I didn’t miss out on the chance to ask him the same thing I ask all self-employed workers I know:
HT: How’s it going with the taxes and paying for your self-employed business license? Is your business turning out to be profitable?
Ariel: Do you see all those white plastic bags? All those are pairs of shoes. I generally have a lot of work. This isn’t new for me; I began in 1993 and it has always worked out well for me. You just got to understand that this type of business has its rules…and it’s important to know them and how they’re applied.
First, it’s important to be located right out on the street. If you situate yourself in a passageway or a corridor, you’re burying yourself alive.
Second, try to be out on the sidewalk or under the portico of a house. When I began repairing shoes in 1993, I worked under the portico at the market, and because of that I had a huge customer base. I even had assistants. Then they disallowed anyone from locating under the portico of a state-run business, so I had to relocate my business somewhere else. It was less than three yards from the sidewalk, but it wasn’t the same any more. It wasn’t so visible, so people didn’t drop in, and consequently the business shrank…
The other detail is that you have to collect what you charge in advance, otherwise they’ll leave their shoes and then won’t come looking for them until a week or a month later, or they won’t come back at all – after all, they’re nothing but old shoes. After they pay, it doesn’t matter to me if they come back or not. But when they come, their shoes are there waiting.
HT: You’ve been here at this site for only a few days. I saw you here for the first time last Saturday. How have you been able to attract so many customers so quickly?
Ariel: Ah-ha, let me explain… I’ve been here for about a month, but the fact is that the first several days weren’t so good. Even though I was in a good place, no one knew me. But you have be disciplined and get yourself into a routine, coming every day and completing your schedule, even if you know that no one’s coming. It’s the same as if you were working for the state and had to punch a time clock.
But you have to be even more disciplined, because your bread and butter depend on it. So say I post my hours as being from 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.; if a prospective customer comes at 5:00 or 5:30 and I’m not there, they’re not coming back. They’ll think I’m not the serious type. The customers need to get used to seeing you at your work location, and they have to see you busy working… Sometimes I’ll light a cigarette but it’ll just sit there and smolder in the ashtray, because I don’t stop.
The other important thing is to know how to treat the public. You need a lot of patience because there are some pretty silly people out there. Did you see that woman who came just by just a little while ago and had the nerve to ask me what I’d been doing all day because her shoes weren’t ready? She didn’t remember that I had repaired her two belts on the spot.
But anyway, I answered her with a big smile — ear to ear — saying that I’d been out playing baseball, but then I showed her all the pairs of shoes I had to fix. She immediately calmed down.
I try to not let things or people bother me. If I expect some type of problem, I’ll give back the money and the article to the customer with all the kindness of the world, and because of that I don’t have any headaches.
They have to decide between waiting a little more for quality work and looking for another repairman who can throw together something fast.
The problem is that in this situation where many people have found themselves forced into self-employed work, lots of them are making things up as they go along, “inventing”; they don’t know the job they’re in and they only want some quick money. I guarantee experience and quality.
HT: When did you learn this trade?
Ariel: Twenty-seven years ago, starting when I was 16. I learned watching other shoemakers. I began by putting new heels on Centauro boots that were used for a long time. Then I began making sandals with a friend. Since I didn’t have tools, I assembled the shoes with those tongs used by mechanics. People said I was crazy.
HT: Did you study anything else? A profession?
Ariel: Nothing. I’ve always made a living from this, and I’ve lived well. I’m not just a repairman, I’m also make footwear, re-upholstering cars, or make and repair mattresses… (He takes out his cellphone and shows me photos of shoes he has made – ones for men, women and children. He also made many of the sandals that his wife wears).
HT: Do you have children?
Ariel: Yes, one. He’s 27. He was born when I was sixteen; hey, I started early. He’s a telecommunications engineer. He has his university degree and that gives me a great deal of pride. But to make a living, he does the very same thing as his dad – he repairs shoes.