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Peter Gerasopoulos: The Milwaukee Cobbler. (PHOTO: Royal Brevvaxling)

Pete the Bay View cobbler retires after 62 years in shoe biz

One of the last, if not the last, independent cobblers in Milwaukee will retire at the end of next month. Peter Gerasopoulos, owner of Cobbler Shoe Service at 827 W. Oklahoma Ave., says he is ready to hang up his aprons and donate his awls. He opened the shop in 1956.

Gerasopoulos says his last day of business will "most likely" be Friday, Nov. 30.

"I don't want to pat myself on the back," says Gerasopoulos."But I feel badly for my customers. There aren't many of us left."

OnMilwaukee wrote this story about the legendary cobbler, who will be missed greatly, a few years ago:

When the Rolling Stones came to Milwaukee in 2005, drummer Charlie Watts needed work done on the heel of his boot. He was told to take it to Peter Gerasopoulos, a legendary local cobbler who runs a shop, simply called Cobbler Shoe Service, at 827 W. Oklahoma Ave.

Gerasopoulos, not knowing that Watts was a famous musician, told him that he could do the challenging heel job but that it would be pricey. Watts told him money wasn't an issue, but that time was.

"He asked me what day I could have it done for him and I said how about 2:15 (that same day)?" says Gerasopoulos.

Later that day, Watts told him who he was. Gerasopoulos admitted he wasn't familiar with the Rolling Stones and that he didn't like rock music in general.

"I told him that my son had a poster of Jerry Garcia in his bedroom and I had to see his face every day walking to the bathroom," says Gerasopoulos. "I said, 'I hate that Jerry Garcia,' and the drummer said, 'He's dead, you know' and I said, 'too bad for him.'"

Shortly after Watts left, Gerasopoulos' neighbor, a barber, ran into the shop and said, "Do you know who that was? You should have kept a boot and sold it on eBay!"

Since opening his first business as a cobbler in 1956, Gerasopoulos has shined or fixed the shoes of every mayor except John Norquist and every police chief except Arthur Jones.

"Many police officers are our customers," he says and, at times, this has worked in his favor.

Years ago, Gerasopoulos was driving home from Easter brunch and a police officer pulled him over for speeding.

"As soon as I opened my mouth, the officer remembered who I was and said, 'Dammit, why did I have to stop you?' He had a leather jacket in my shop at the time," says Gerasopoulos. "So he gave me a warning."

Gerasopoulos provided two shines a week for Archbishop Timothy Dolan during his time in Milwaukee from 2002 to '09 and he services all the shoes in the "Mamma Mia" show whenever it comes to town.

Gerasopoulos can make, shine or fix shoes, coats and bags – basically any leather product. He specializes in – and built his reputation on – his ability to do quality, challenging custom work.

Gerasopoulos has never advertised his business. "We give prizes for church picnics, but that's all," he says.

Gerasopoulos — who discloses his age as "under 100" – was born in a village near Kozani, Greece. His father, also a cobbler, taught him the trade. After a two-year apprenticeship, Gerasopoulos wanted to earn money, but he knew it would take a lot of time for that to happen if he stayed in Greece.

"If I wanted a pair of pants, I would tell my mother, who would tell my father who would then wait two months before buying me the pants," says Gerasopoulos. "I wanted to make money quickly."

Gerasopoulos asked his uncle to contact his brother, a cobbler living in Milwaukee, to sponsor him so he could move to the United States. Within a week, plans were in motion and before long, Gerasopoulos was on a boat with 800 Italians and Greeks en route to America.

The trip took 18 days and during that time Gerasopoulos spent all of his money – $75 that his father gave him. "Foolish me, I was 19. I played cards on the boat and spent the money," he says.

When he got off the boat, a woman working at Ellis Island asked him in Greek how much money he had and where he was going.

"I told her I had a dime and a nickel and I was going to Milwaukee. She asked me how I was going to make it to Wisconsin with so little money and I told her I wasn't going to Wisconsin, I was going to Milwaukee," says Gerasopoulos.

The woman, who most likely worked for the Greek Welfare Society, told him to find his suitcase and sit on it until she could drive him to the airport and buy him a plane ticket.

Gerasopoulos arrived in Milwaukee safely and was met by his aunt and uncle at the airport. However, finding work wasn't as easy as he'd hoped.

Gerasopoulos' uncle was also a cobbler, but he was unable to hire him full-time. There were about 40 cobbler shops in Downtown Milwaukee in the 1950s, most of them owned and operated by Italians. Gerasopoulos was skilled enough to do the work, but because he was unable to speak Italian, he could not converse with the "counter girls" who took the orders.

Unable to find a cobbling job, Gerasopoulos went to work at a foundry for 11 months and during that time he considered returning to Greece.

"It was dirty and hot. All of my body suffered," he says.

A friend convinced him to stay, and before long, Gerasopoulos had his first shop on Clement Avenue in Bay View. He later moved his business to the now-defunct Point Loomis Center.

In 2001, he moved the business to its current location.

"This shop is our best shop," says Gerasopoulos' wife, Judy, who works the front desk.

"Pete has a garden in the back and we have windows. It was so dark in the mall, but here, we have the daylight and the kids wave to us on their way to school," she says.

The couple, who have been married for 50 years, met at a Greek diner in Milwaukee while Judy was having dinner with her sister before a Johnny Mathis concert.

"We got old and ugly together," says Judy.

They went on to have two sons and three grandsons and have lived in Greenfield for most of their married life.

"We don't make many changes," she says.

For 47 years, Gerasopoulos has gone to the same George Webb – now a Griddler's Cafe – for breakfast every morning, every day of the a week.

"We go on vacation once a year for a week and I always call and tell the waitresses that Pete won't be there; otherwise, they'll worry that something happened to him," she says.

The cobbler business is one that hasn't been changed very much by technology. The machines are very similar to what they were decades ago. Plus, the couple still uses a 70-year-old cash register and does not accept credit cards.

"We don't even have a fax machine. We're lucky to have a touch-button phone. We had a rotary one until two years ago," says Judy. "One customer thought our cash register was just an antique, not something we actually use."

Although the craft and tools of cobbling haven't changed very much over the years, the shoe industry has. People are more likely to replace rather than repair shoes and the popularity of tennis shoes has also made the cobbler's work less necessary.

At one time, Gerasopoulos had six full-time shoemakers on staff. During busy times like Easter, he would receive 150 shoes a week to be spruced up or fixed. By the late '80s, he was down to two cobblers and in the early '90s, he let the last one go and Judy started to work in the shop instead.

"People ask me how I can stand the smell (of shoe polish and adhesives) and some could say there are health hazards to this job, but we're still alive," she says.

Gerasopoulos is proud to have made his income 100 percent from cobbling – many other cobblers he knew had other part- or full-time jobs – and he's grateful to still be in the shop.

"I don't know how to sit home. If I sit home, I get bored," he says.

For Judy, the reason for her husband's success goes beyond luck.

"Not that I'm partial, but he's the best. He learned from the ground up and he's now taking care of a third generation of customers," she says. "But when he does walk out the door someday, that's it. There will be no one taking his place. But that's OK, we've been blessed all of our life."

Talkbacks

Schubert1965 | Oct. 30, 2018 at 8:45 a.m. (report)

I've been going to him since the mid-eighties. I've often spoke and dreaded the day he decided to hang it up. He's been such an asset to the community and the quality of work was by far, the best and was a great alternative to the pricey Allen Edmonds "re-crafting". He and his Wife will be greatly missed but can certainly retire in style, very well deserved.

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Yada | Aug. 19, 2015 at 4:59 p.m. (report)

This should be a growth biz in near future as trade war starts and people won't be able to get new shoes quickly since they all come from the future combatant China.

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the_ocotillo | April 26, 2015 at 11:02 a.m. (report)

Awesome story.

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