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Saving soles and more

Hernando Today correspondent
Published:   |   Updated: May 7, 2013 at 06:19 PM

Larry Whitman stands behind the counter, discussing orthopedic shoe repair with his customer. The older client brought in three single left shoes and asked Whitman to build up the soles so she could level her gait. Her left leg, she explained, was losing length, a condition known as leg-length discrepancy.

Whitman explained how he would correct the problem, using terms that were easily understood in a smooth, calming tone. Comfortable with his answers, the customer thanked him. "I trust you to do the best you can," she said as she walked out the door.

Whitman is a shoe repair craftsman and was exposed to the trade as a youngster while growing up in Largo. His father, Roy, owned a shoe repair shop where young Larry spent much of his childhood — learning how to stitch, grind and fix worn or broken soles and heels back into perfect pre-worn condition.

Larry and his wife, Glenda, branched out and opened the original Larry's Shoe Repair 1972 in Clearwater on Belcher Ave. But Glenda was a Brooksville girl, born and raised in the quiet town. In 1978, the couple moved their shop to the corner of Jefferson Street and Ponce de Leon Boulevard.

The dynamics immediately changed. "I started doing more boot repair," Larry said with a chuckle. It was a culture shock, he admitted, leaving the bustle of Pinellas County to take up shop in rural Hernando. But it was a peaceful, comfortable change.

Larry's Shoe Repair has been at their location in Brooksville for 35 years. His was the last of five shops to hang an open sign in the window. Today Larry's is the only repair shop left in the county and one of only a handful that exists in the tri-county area.

Larry resoles and re-heels old shoes. "People still have them repaired," he said, even though most modern shoes are considered throw-aways. "We do some rip work on them too." But most repairs, he said, are on the better-quality shoes. "There are still good shoes out there."

Glenda does the stitch work. "I do all the rips and repairs on the shoes, purses and golf bags," she said.

But on some brands — like Allen Edmonds — or for a customer who has a favorite pair they don't want to live without, repairing them becomes an attractive, and often affordable, option.

"I get customers from all over," Larry said. Some even mail in their shoes from other states. His customer base is somewhat diverse. He now sees a lot more orthopedic cases than ever before. About 10 to 15 percent of his repair business now includes orthopedic work. But boot repairs are huge.

Orthopedic work involves correcting or accommodating certain foot issues like leg-length discrepancies, metatarsal problems and heel spurs, as well as creating custom-made arch supports, Larry said.

It is becoming more popular to add a lift to the shoe rather than purchase special bulky orthopedic shoes or deal with painful inserts.

"The doctor writes a prescription," Larry explained, "and I do to the shoe what the doctor says. But they don't have to have a prescription if they know what their problem is."

Like his customer with the three left shoes. She had a half inch discrepancy that Larry would build up to make her legs level.

He explained that discrepancies in length can lead to other more serious issues like scoliosis and other skeletal problems.

Larry's Shoe Repair also carries new shoes, from recreational and work boots to casual and dressy shoes. The retail sales encompass about 55 percent of the business.

They carry all major brands of shoes, and work and recreational boots (including steel-toe boots and motorcycle boots), including Red Wing, Justin, Georgia, Durango, Chippewa, Dan Post, Nocona, Tony Lama and H.H. Carolina, in men, women and children's styles.

Their secret to longevity is simple. Glenda said they were fortunate to have help from their family. The Whitmans raised three children while running their store, all of whom helped out when they were needed.

The economy certainly affected their business, both in the decline of sales and also, ironically, in some increase in repair jobs. "Usually those who are watching their pennies repair," Glenda said.

But as independent shop owners, the Whitmans had the freedom to be flexible. They work alone and balance each other's role in the shop's daily operations.

The Whitmans are a friendly couple who give off the aura of contentment. They have been married longer than their business has survived — both of which are worth taking notice.

"I had a great teacher," Larry said. He quoted his father, Roy's, slogan, "I may not be a preacher, but I sure can save your soles."

Biz at a Glance

Name: Larry's Show Repair

Address: 704 W. Jefferson St., Brooksville

Telephone: (352) 796-0747

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