City Shoe Repair is a busy place, and Mariano Ortega is sitting in a rocking chair watching the activity, taking in the action, shaking hands with people he knows, introducing himself to strangers, learning their business with a smile and a firm, welcoming handshake.
At the counter, David Smith and his wife, Gloria Smith, are at work taking in shoes that need fixing and returning footwear that’s been coaxed back to near newness. Three other shoe shops do business in Santa Fe, but none of them as much as City Shoe Repair, the Smiths say. Their business is at 950 W. Cordova Road.
Gloria Smith, Ortega’s daughter, co-owns the business. She and David bought City Shoe Repair from her father in 1974.
“We make a good living here,” said Gloria Smith, who is also a nurse at Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center. “We work hard.”
Ortega, who’s 84, thinks about his wife of 65 years and 10 months, Pita Mendoza, who died Oct. 3 of last year. “It’s very lonely now,” he said. “I get there, and she’s not home.”
Work in the shoe-repair store involves repairing soles and heels and lifts and other things shoes need. The Ortegas also will replace zippers. And sell customers green chile and beans, as well.
Soles will cost you $50, and so will heels, Ortega said.
Ortega doesn’t do a lot of work these days, but he’ll step in if needed. He knows the shoe business — he’s practiced shoe repair for
He doesn’t think much of shoe quality anymore, even Florsheim Shoes, which he said used to be a good brand. “They were the best,” said Ortega, adding that widely popular made-in-China shoes are often “crap” because the rubber used in their construction often breaks. “You can’t fix them — they’re junk,” he said.
(Florsheim, it should be noted, is still going strong.)
Looking back over his 84 years, Ortega recalls the difficulty of life in the 1930s and ’40s. The Great Depression didn’t spare Santa Fe, and Ortega remembers times when “we would come after school and there was nothing to eat.”
Three of the Ortega boys, including Mariano, dropped out of school and went to work at a shoe shop.
In 1944, Ortega joined the Army, delighted to be in a situation where he could always find food or a hot shower. Ortega ended up being shipped overseas to help supervise post-war Japan.
One thing he did find a little strange was the fact that they sent him all that way across the Pacific just to fix GI shoes and officer shoes that could have been fixed at home for a lot less.
It turns out that Ortega took part in the war effort more than he knew at the time. He was asked to use his skills to sew the canvas slings, which, he later learned, were used to position bombs in bomb bays before they were fused and then dropped.
Ortega was so good at his craft that he was soon promoted, first to private first class and then to corporal, followed by further promotions to technical sergeant and staff sergeant. He had a career in the Army before he knew it.
Japan in the late ’40s after the war was a quiet place for the most part, Ortega said, but he didn’t enjoy being there. “Everything was bombed out. And we were segregated from the Japanese people,” he said.
Ortega returned to Santa Fe in 1947 and the following year went up the hill to Los Alamos to work in a shoe repair shop, where he worked for 32 years.
The building was owned by Los Alamos resident Bud Stern, who encouraged Ortega in his business. “He [Stern] was a good man,” Ortega said. As was another Los Alamos resident — Norris Bradbury — former director of Los Alamos National Laboratory. “He wore coveralls and Li’l Abner shoes,” Ortega remembered.
Ortega and his wife raised eight kids — six of their own and two grandchildren — and looking back on it all, Ortega says, “I had a wonderful life except during the Depression. I thank the good Lord.”
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