Conversations: Keeping Up with the Cobbler

“I’ll die in this shop,” Soillis says with a grin.
By Liana Yamin E. and C. Ramsey Fahs

“The best thing was the days of the Hippie Times. Sandals, pocketbooks, belts, everything. Even this buckle; it was from the Hippie Time,” says Christos Soillis, the garish belt-buckle dropping from his calloused hands back into its box with a loud clang. Soillis lets out a chuckle at the memory of a Harvard Square overrun by hippies and their worn leather sandals.

Nestled between Gnomon Copy and Zinnia Jewelry, Felix Shoe Repair has been in business for over 100 years. Soillis bought the shop in 1969 after having worked there for six years. In ’69, there were seven shoe repair stores in Harvard Square. Today that number has been reduced to just two. But Felix is never without work, and the shop garners consistent attention.

Going by the online archives, this will be the fourth Crimson article written about Soillis’s shop (unfortunately, there was absolutely no way to top the headline “Felix the Cobbler Heals Broken Soles”). The septuagenarian acts simultaneously as historical artifact and historical resource, recalling the Harvard Square of years passed with surprising clarity.

As Soillis begins telling us about his childhood in Greece, the bell above the door chimes. A customer enters. He shows Soillis his hipster-inspired, brown leather boots and asks how much it would cost to get the salt cleaned off of them. Soillis reassures him: “That’s alright. This is very easy—you [can] do this by yourself.” He walks over to the display of shoe cleaners and brushes, and demonstrates the pros and cons of each option. Cost versus efficiency, convenience versus longevity. The young man leaves with products in tow, and Soillis’s story resumes.

Born in the Greek village of Kyparissi in 1936, Soillis comes from humble circumstances. He walked an hour or more to school—shoeless, ironically. When he was 11, he walked three and a half hours to the town of Logganiko “to find a life.” There, he stumbled upon the local cobbler by chance and was taken in. The moment of truth, he recalls, was when the cob- bler asked him, “You gonna be a shoemaker?” Soillis makes a brief dusting off gesture with his hands. “And that’s when I became a shoemaker,” he says. His family paid for his apprenticeship in olive oil.

Soillis moved to America in 1963 with his wife Maria. Before purchasing Felix Shoe Repair, he worked four jobs, putting in 18-20 hours a day, seven days a week. The decades of labor are worn into Soillis’s hands: There are weathered lines, marks of polish, and thick muscle built from a lifetime of craftsmanship.

“The first job, I was paid 79 cents an hour,” he says. Behind him on a wall, $600 Italian heels await his attention.

Soillis has a few points that he circles back to throughout the interview. Among them are his love and gratitude for America: “We are the luckiest people to live in America,” says Soillis. “I am the richest person in the world.” He says this with earnest sincerity.

Pictures of Soillis’s family adorn the shop; Soillis says his work and his loved ones have always been enough to sustain him. Though he speaks fondly and extensively of his grand- children, he admits he can’t identify with their upbringing.

“My kids, my grandkids...they have everything. My grandson is 15 years old, and I have a telephone as [old] as he is.... He’s got a telephone, $400,” he jokingly gripes.

Things are changing in Harvard Square, too. The hippies of the ’60s have been replaced with hipsters, cobblers with Urban Outfitters.

One thing is for sure: Felix Shoe Repair will be around at least until Soillis isn’t.

“I’ll die in this shop,” Soillis says with a grin.

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