His customers come from all over — Aliquippa, Cranberry, Erie, Weirton — ready to launch with their “savior of my sole” puns. They’re mostly right, because there isn’t much that Mario can’t or won’t fix: loafers, heels, boots, sandals, dress shoes, belts, purses.
“I hate coming up short,” he says. “This is my name, you know? I’m only as good as my last repair.”
Technically, he’s open Tuesday through Saturday, but he’s usually here on Sunday and Monday too, hidden away in the back, taking care of things that naturally tend to fall by the wayside as he waits on a steady stream of customers.
Mario, can you save these? They’re my favorite…
The soles entrusted into Mario’s care reveal much about their owner. “The shoe doesn’t lie,” he likes to say. He’ll take one look and know right away how you walk and how often, whether you shuffle your feet or drag them, or prefer brisk walks to meandering strolls.
I’m here to pick up, Mario. How do they look?
He moves deftly between a menagerie of growling vintage machines, finishers, polishers, stitchers with names such as the “Landis Aristocrat” and “The Nibbler.” Strip. Sand. Glue. Trim. Grind. Press. Set. Stitch. Polish. Mario makes it look easy, but it takes a lot of shoes to feed the family.
Hey, Mario, can you get these to me by Friday?
He’s been doing this for 25 years now, having started at the age of 16 working part-time in a shop much like this one: shoes stacked six-deep on wooden shelves lining the walls, tagged and bagged in bins and ready for pick up, cans of uncapped color spray under wooden shoe stretchers hanging like fresh cuts of meat, neatly color coded jars of Meltonian and Kiwi shoe polish, Fiebing’s Salt Stain Remover, and displays of Sole Choice laces. Even when he’s not there, his knuckles remain stained a blackish purple, the fragrant smell of leather clinging to his clothes.
“My hands are clean for one week a year…when I go on vacation,” he smiles.
While away, he misses his shop and the customers, people who have become an extended family. His wife and kids have never met Todd, Lou, Charles, or Mateo, but no matter. They’ve heard so many stories, they might as well have.
People know Mario’s stories, too.
When his son was diagnosed with a tumor behind his eye a few years ago, everyone wanted to help in some way: volunteering to open the shop, close the shop, recommendations on medical care, personal referral’s to the best of the best surgeons and specialists in the field.
Mario still tears up when he talks about it.
His son just turned 16, eager to burn rubber with a freshly laminated driver’s license tucked in his pocket.
“Sewickley has been very, very good to me,” he says. His customers are so dear to him — all those personalities, all those characters, every single one, a beloved friend.
“This is my dungeon,” he smiled. “But it’s also my world.”