Stepping out of the fluorescent-lit checkout line and into the Jiffy Shoe Service shop at the Millidgeville Superstore feels like a time warp.
Whirring machines, hammering and employee banter mix with the intoxicating, solvent tang of glue and leather. A tall, leafy potted plant sits amid bright canisters of polishes and dyes.
Most notably, every surface is stacked high with footwear, from designer boots and high-heels to much-loved loafers and skate sneakers. In addition to the footwear side of the business, the shop specializes in key-cutting, blade sharpening and leather goods repair.
This whole workspace is kind of out of the regular, with features we've manipulated to our needs. - Terry Crowe, Jiffy Shoe Service
"This is so Dickensian," co-owner Terry Crowe said over the sound of a buffing and sanding machine.
"You've got knives on wheels, handles you've got to turn around. It's noisy, a bit of a mess. But I'll tell you, it brings me great pleasure."
Crowe, who grew up less than two kilometres away in Millidgeville, owns the shop with his business partner, Kelly Dykens.
Dykens worked in a grocery store before joining forces with Crowe in 1990.
"It's the third oldest profession," she said, laughing.
"Pretty much no one wants to do it anymore. We're the last one standing in Saint John."
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Inclusive, adaptable workplace
For Crowe, "standing up for nine hours a day," is among the significant challenges, he said.
"I'm not a puppy anymore."
Crowe suffers from ankylosing spondylitis, an inflammatory disease that can cause some vertebrae in the spine to fuse together, creating a hunched-forward posture.
"Like, at one time, I could peer over the top of that," said Crowe, gesturing toward one of the machines.
"I can no longer do that."
But instead of "lamenting [my] plight," he said, he and a colleague jury-rigged a plastic shoehorn with a rectangular hole cut into it, which lets Crowe extend his reach sufficiently to grab the knobs.
There have been numerous such adjustments at Jiffy.
"This whole workspace is kind of out of the regular, with features we've manipulated to our needs," said Crowe.
"We could be a working study in how to adapt a workplace for the disabled community."
Keeping things simple
Jiffy Shoe Service first opened in the nineties in Parkway Mall — a now-shuttered shopping centre that was, as Crowe and Dykens remember it, a hub of retail activity.
There was a lot of competition for shoe repairs throughout the city, with "a shop on the corner of Cobourg and Union, Maritime Shoe Repair, a shop on Bayside Drive, one on Ready Street," said Crowe.
"I think they just retired out of the business but didn't have legacy plans."
Crowe and Dykens experimented with a second Quispamsis location but determined that consolidating operations would be easier to manage.
"When you can do all your work out of one place, you avoid paying two rents and twice as many staff," said Crowe.
After Jiffy's first eight years in business, the Superstore said wanted some community businesses inside the store, he said, "and we jumped."
Two months ago, the business hired NBCC student Vincent Asonganyi, who moved to Canada in August 2015 from Cameroon. He said his experience at Jiffy Shoe Service has cemented his ties to Saint John.
"The job helped me want to stay," Asonganyi said.
"I have gained a lot of experience here, setting things up, and using the tools. This will help me everywhere when I go."
An assembly line for heels
Crowe said the best repair jobs are the ones that initially seem impossible.
He describes taking a pair of cowboy boots that have been "really worn right out with the finish destroyed," renewing the soles, straightening out the heels, removing heavy salt stains with vinegar and shampoo and scraping them with a knife.
"The customer comes back, and they can't believe it," he said.
He gestures toward a work table stacked with ancient briefcases, shoes and purses.
"We usually arrange the next day's work right here," said Crowe, describing how the team starts with glue jobs, then moves on to matching leather pieces for patching.
"The last thing of the day is all the heels," he said.
"We form an assembly line: one takes off the heel, one prepares it for the replacement, then we do the rough trimming, then the fine trimming, then the buffing, then they all go up to the front for the polishing."
It's a highly co-operative process, he said, and one that requires highly skilled colleagues.
"It's good when you land in an intersection in life when your talents meet the needs of the community," he said.
"That doesn't happen for everybody, and it's a real sin. A lot of people just jump around from job to job, they don't have a feeling of fulfilment of something they can offer to the community.
"It's not a great, big offering, but it's our offering."
"Not all heroes wear capes," added Dykens.
"Some wear aprons."
No shortage of shoes
Given the much-discussed advent of a so-called disposable culture, where most consumers would rather buy new than repair something old, does Crowe ever feel cobblers are a dying breed?
"Take a look around this shop," he said, gesturing at the piles of shoes that customers have brought in for some TLC.
"We're wading through piles of shoes here, none of which have been thrown out, all of which we are repairing."
While Jiffy Shoe might be the sole survivor in Saint John, "if you go to any large center — Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg — they have bustling shoe repair shops in competition with each other."
Saint John's retail landscape, while less bustling, still has much to offer shoppers tired of the box-store sprawl.
"There's a whole world of things going on beyond what you might personally be paying attention to," said Crowe.
It's small businesses, just as much as multibillion-dollar industries, that have shaped fabric of the 231-year-old city of Saint John.
"But they're there, and they are positive. You just have to look a little harder."
In a province obsessed with attracting new business — and where hefty development incentives don't always translate into long-term success — many of Saint John's mom-and-pop shops have managed to withstand the slow battering of a sluggish economy, an aging population and the rise of big box stores.
Small businesses employ 25,000 to 29,000 Saint Johners among Chamber of Commerce members alone — and cumulatively, over 8.2 million individuals in Canada. Small businesses make up about 70 per cent of the total private labour force, according to Statistics Canada.