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Hamburg shoemaker cobbles together a life full of heart and sole

As a young man, Thomas J. Burakowski worked as a counselor in a substance abuse treatment program for teens. But being involved in endless family dramas became too much for him to bear.

Fortunately for him, he had a release that he learned thanks to his service in the Peace Corps: leather work.

A hobby born of stress became a career as a shoemaker, making Burakowski a Hamburg business owner and one of the last of an occupation that once numbered more than 100,000 in the United States.

“Because there are so few of us, we become more precious – like a diamond in the rough,” said Burakowski, 71, whose Shoemaker’s Bench on South Abbott Road has been operating for 42 years.

About 7,200 people are employed in the shoe, leather work and repair industry, according to statistics from May 2017 compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Labor. Of that number, about 4,300 are shoemakers, down from more than 100,000 in the 1930s. Some states – Florida, Georgia, Nevada – have so few shoemakers that their numbers are not listed on bureau charts.

Western New York had a large shoe repair community after World War II with 250 shoe repair shops in the city, said Burakowski, former president of the former Western New York Shoe Repair Association. Today he estimates that, at most, 100 shoe repair shops operate in the eight Western New York counties and Rochester.

Burakowski, a Canisius College graduate, discovered shoemaking as a Peace Corps volunteer in Jamaica, where he met a traveler from Copenhagen who made him a pair of sandals.

Thomas Burakowski fixes a hockey skate at his shop. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

“The man was so intriguing, I wanted to learn how to make myself a pair of sandals,” he recalled.

Burakowski moved his young family to Kalamazoo, Mich., so he could apprentice as a shoemaker before returning in the mid-1970s to establish his Hamburg business.

His shop is small, its walls covered by memories. Concert ticket stubs from Simon and Garfunkel’s farewell tour, an old newspaper story on Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party” and an ad featuring U2’s Bono torn from a magazine each have a place for a reason.

The shoemaker admired the rock star’s leather shoulder bag. “I take inspiration wherever I can get it,” Burakowski said.

Burakowski’s conversation is thoughtful, soft and scattered. Working alone allows time for contemplation, he said, but he loves when the shop door swings open.

Shoe repair is his bread and butter, with his goal to restore them to look new. Salt stains disappear. Broken heels are healed. Worn soles get replaced. And his reputation travels well. Out-of-state customers mail shoes in need of repair from Denver, Atlanta, Miami and San Diego, he said.

Shoemaker Thomas Burakowski stitches a customer's leather shoe. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

When it comes to shoe repair, Burakowski may be a magician but he is a true master when it comes to making sandals. Photos on the wall sent by customers show them wearing his sandals on feet dangling from Mount Rainier or at a barbecue in Las Vegas.

Burakowski’s custom-fit sandals are crafted during a series of fittings – much like a tailor makes a suit, he said. “Your foot will tell us what works for you. The type of leather hinges on what you plan to use them for, but remember puppies love this leather. They think it’s the greatest chewing bone.”

So what shoes are worn by this master shoemaker?

He's wearing a pair of olive Clarks he picked up in Montreal and altered as soon as he got back to his shop. Burakowski added a funky brick red strap that matched the shoe stitching.

Burakowski wants to pass on the knowledge he learned at the at hand of his mentor. He wants others to share the pleasure he derives from a well-restored shoe.

"At the end of the day as a youth counselor, I wasn’t sure if I did any good," he said. "But when I look at the shelf and see the restoration of a quality shoe, it makes me feel satisfied.”

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