The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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August 3, 2013

Tough shoes to fill: Business closing after 92 years

JOHNSTOWN — All things, even the pleasant ones, eventually come to an end.

The many customers of Yankee Shoe Repair Factory Inc. are coming to that realization after hearing that the business will close Sept. 17.

The business, a stalwart in Johnstown for 92 years, is located at 230 Bedford St. downtown and has served the needs of those looking for shoe repairs or help with foot problems.

The decision to close Yankee Shoe Repair was difficult, said Larry M. Coco, 63, owner and certified pedorthist.

But because of retirements and the loss of a skilled staff, closing is inevitable.

“Without sufficient skilled staff, and considering current footwear buying trends, coupled with economic conditions, the long-term stability of the business was in jeopardy,” Coco said.

He said most Americans have ignored the concept of buying high-quality shoes or getting them fixed.

 “Given the materials used in footwear today, 95 percent of the shoes people buy can’t be repaired,” Coco said.

The business has helped countless customers since Italian immigrant Mike Coco, Larry Coco’s grandfather, opened the business in 1921. The business flourished for decades under the direction of Carmel and Sam Coco, Mike Coco’s sons.

Carmel Coco died in May and Sam Coco, 89, lives in Windber.

The business won the Eastern Silver Cup for best shoe repair on the Eastern Seaboard five times and won the National Silver Cup for best shoe repair in the country in 1963.

The Coco brothers were inducted into Johnstown’s Business Hall of Fame in 2007.

After Carm Coco took over at age 21, the shop expanded into sales of orthotic shoes as well as shoe repair.

“He has fitted generations of people with foot problems,” Larry Coco said. “Doctors would write a prescription to modify their shoes, and Dad would fill it.”

One of Yankee’s more recent customers expressed shock when he learned of the store’s closing.

Todd Barkley of Cover Hill, an employee of Penelec, was in the store to buy a pair of work boots when he learned the store was closing.

Barkley wasn’t worried about buying boots somewhere else, it was replacing the orthotic insert made by Yankee craftsmen that had him sweating.

“What am I going to do?” he said.

He explained that he had been to doctors concerning chronic sore feet, but no one could help him until he walked into Yankee Shoe Repair.

“Carm sat me in a chair, had me remove my shoes and he began to feel my feet,” he said. “He made me my orthotics and told me to give them a try.”

After several days, the pain disappeared. Barkley makes a habit of wearing his orthotic inserts with every pair of footwear he owns.

He again expressed puzzlement about what he is going to do in the future.

“I better buy another pair to use as a spare before the store closes,” he said.

Joselle Skelley of Westmont, Carm Coco’s daughter, said many customers have been coming in to do the same thing since the closing was announced.

“There have been a lots of tears on both sides of the counter,” she said. “People come in and express their gratitude for what they had done here.”

Skelley said there was never a day when her father did not feel like going to work.

The business faced many challenges over the years, but the Coco brothers refused to yield.

They rebuilt the shop after major floods in 1936 and 1977, and again when a fire razed the entire block in 1974.

“Johnstown is losing something great,” said Sam Coco, who is recuperating from a fall. “We were so diversified that we had earned a reputation that had us sending shoes all over the world, from England to Japan.”

Sam Coco had visions of finding his fortune out West when he was discharged from the Marines following World War II. His brother talked him into staying in Johnstown and growing the business.

“We considered ourselves the doorway to Johnstown as people entered the city,” he said.

“We had loyal customers who came into town to patronize the small businesses like Yankee, Coney Island, Apryle Jewelers and the Fish Boat, to name a few.”

He is thankful for those customers who really became more like friends over the years.

The elder Coco said the true backbones of the business were his son, Jerry Coco, and nephew, Charlie Kamut, who remains at the shop part time at the age of 74. He has been a fixture in the shop, sewing thousands of miles of shoe leather over the past 62 years.

Jerry Coco recently retired, citing health issues.

Cathie Hoffer of Johnstown stopped at the shop prior to work to pick up a pair of shoes she had reheeled.

“They are going to be sadly missed,” she said. “No matter when I came in, I found them to be knowledgeable, helpful and friendly.”

Hoffer said the craftsmen have repaired her favorite pair of boots more than once.

“The last time I had soles and heels replaced and I couldn’t tell you what I paid,” she said. “The boots were not expensive, but they are comfortable, and it is worth any price to keep them in good condition as far as I’m concerned.”

The Coco brothers were children of The Great Depression and knew the value of saving things.

Larry Coco was surprised to discover an original stitching machine that dates back to 1921 when he returned to work in the shop.

He retrieved a ledger that his grandfather kept in 1926. He listed ticket numbers, repair orders and prices to fix each item.

In that era, replacing soles and heels on a pair of shoes cost $1.25. That job would cost about $50 in 2013.

Replacing buckles or tabs on shoes cost about 20 cents.

Larry Coco remembers working in the shop when he was a child.

I started out sweeping the store and worked my way up to tearing off soles and heels,” he said. “I never did get a chance to put them on.”

Young Coco left Johnstown to carve out a career at the U.S. Department of Energy, where he supervised the cleanup of former nuclear sites.

He returned to Johnstown in 2005 and concentrated on several businesses before becoming a certified pedorthist himself.

“My dad used to work side-by-side with physicians to ensure people had the proper fit,” Larry Coco said.

The business will continue to provide quality shoe repair and pedorthic foot care services.

Current stock will be sold while supplies last. Inventory sales are in effect until the doors close at the end of September.

The family will attempt to sell the building.

With tears in her eyes, Skelley remembered how devoted her father and uncle were to the welfare of people.

“My dad and uncle got so much joy and satisfaction out of knowing that their work helped so many others,” Skelley said.

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