Amidst the busy hustle and bustle of Forest Drive sits a business that has been quietly serving Columbia residents for more than 25 years. Many have depended on this store to mend broken heels, torn soles and ripped seams. One would be hard pressed to find a shoe or a purse that Bobby’s Shoe Repair can’t fix.
Bobby’s Shoe Repair, a family business since its inception, has been a fixture in Columbia since it first opened on Forest Drive in the early 1990s. The late Bobby Atkinson, founder and owner of the business, spent most of his life in the shoe repair business. He was the son of a sharecropper who dabbled in shoe repair, thus, it’s as if Bobby and his family were destined to carry on with that profession all these years later. Bobby first worked with his brother, Mel, at a shoe repair shop on Sumter Street. When Mel’s son, Bubba, returned from the service, he began working with Mel, and Bobby opened his own repair shop on Devine Street.
Forty years ago, there was a lot of construction taking place on Devine Street, and Bobby was told there would be a place for his shop after the construction was completed. Unfortunately, that ultimately wasn’t the case, so Bobby took all of his tools and equipment and moved his repair shop to Granby Village in West Columbia. Living on the east side of Columbia, Bobby wasn’t pleased with the location of his shop, so he looked for another, more convenient opportunity. As luck would have it, a man who owned a shoe repair store on Forest Drive was looking to sell, and Mel was interested in giving a repair store to each of his sons to run and manage, so he purchased the business. One of Mel’s sons chose not to run the business on Forest Drive, and Bobby jumped at the opportunity to make the store his own.
Nearly 25 years later, Bobby’s remains a successful mainstay in Forest Acres. As businesses come and go, Bobby’s, with its big red sign, continues to serve its loyal customers.
The art of shoe repair is an old one, dating back centuries. Bobby and his family’s intention to enter this profession was a smart business decision even 50 years ago, as shoe repair is one of the few types of businesses that doesn’t seem to be affected by the economy –– at least in the case of the Atkinsons’ shoe repair endeavors. As expected, during the recession, the purchase of new shoes was not high on a person’s list. But having a pair to wear was a necessity. People needed their shoes fixed, and they needed it done quickly.
In the early days of Bobby’s Shoe Repair, the quick turnaround and understanding of the sense of urgency is what led to its success. “In the very early days of the shoe repair business, people would come in and wait for their shoes to be repaired because they only had one pair of shoes to wear,” says Ryan Atkinson, Bobby’s son and current owner of Bobby’s Shoe Repair. “My dad would be backed up repairing soles and heels. People would come in and wait on the shoes and ask my dad if he had the time. Regardless of whether they had the time or not, my Uncle Mel would say, ‘Yes,’ and they would get the job done.”
That commitment to the customer became ingrained in the way that Bobby ran his own business. The “yes-we-can” attitude has kept Bobby’s in business all these years. Coming off of those days with his brother Mel, Bobby insisted that whatever came in today would be fixed tomorrow. Bobby’s co-workers couldn’t believe he could continue to keep to that commitment, but somehow he always did. That way of doing business has stuck with Ryan since taking over the business after his father’s passing three years ago. As business has continued to boom over the years, that next-day turnaround has had to give a bit. Today, Ryan and his team are still committed to a fast turnaround of three days. While the sit and wait method of doing business has mostly passed, today Ryan finds customers bringing in five or six pairs of shoes at a time to get repaired –– especially women’s heels.
It’s not just the quick turnaround that keeps customers returning … it’s the exceptional customer service that goes along with it. The shop’s long-standing relationships with its customers are a valuable part of what makes Bobby’s special, and the team at Bobby’s is committed to providing the best service possible to everyone. “If we get behind or aren’t able to meet our promised pick-up time, we are always willing to work with the customer to provide a discount or special term,” says Ryan. “I believe that is one of the things that sets us apart from other repair stores. For us, it’s about the relationship with the customer –– providing excellent work but also being willing to work with the customer if we can’t meet their specified needs.”
It’s an attitude that is shared throughout the family. An important aspect, since Bobby’s is a true family business. Today, Ryan, Susie, his wife, Ruby, his mother, and Brodie, his nephew, all play a part in the success of Bobby’s Shoe Repair. Their success has come through word-of-mouth and satisfied customers. Ryan also attributes a lot of their success to drive-by traffic and those big red letters on the Bobby’s Shoe Repair sign. “Our sign was faded and was eventually knocked over,” says Ryan. “I finally replaced it, and ever since, business has been growing. You’d be surprised how many people tell me they just happened to see the sign when riding by.”
Finding a reliable and highly capable shoe repair shop isn’t always an easy one, as shoe repair is an intricate skill. Delicate seaming and detailed stitching are imperative in the repair process so experience and proficiency are very important. Ryan still has stitching machines from the 1920s that he occasionally has to pull out for a repair. But today, glue also plays an important role in the process. As the glue gets better, the need for stitching decreases.
Ryan is still a bit of an old-school shoe repairman. “We just figure it out,” he says. “We have salesmen from different companies who will try to convince us that their new product is the best and will change the way things bond. They haven’t convinced me yet, so we stick to what we know works.” What they do seems to work quite well — today, many suppliers tell Ryan that Bobby’s Shoe Repair is still the busiest repair shop with whom they do business.
Their service and techniques continue to propel them forward, as customers return again and again –– and it’s not just for the shoes and purses. Bobby’s repairs luggage, belts, curtains –– including the massive burgundy drapes found at the Colonial Life Arena. “The drapes are so large, they have to bring them in parts. They don’t fit in the door, so I have to pull my sewing machine up to the door and sew them there,” says Ryan. He has even been tasked with fixing large, oversized mascot shoes. “If I can get it on my machines, I’ll fix it,” he adds.
As it is with many successful businesses, Bobby’s Shoe Repair’s business goals have remained the same since its inception –– do high-quality work, do it in a timely manner and always be mindful of the needs of the customer. That approach, unlike many of the shoes that Bobby’s has repaired over the years, will never go out of style.