By Cheryl Ross
Natalie Cole and her father Nat are singing a duet at the Original Rogers Park Shoe Repair, 1330 W. Morse. John Peter Geroulis sings along as he juggles repairs to five different shoes. He’s 55 and well-padded, with salt-and-pepper hair. As he works and sings he also smiles. When he’s really pleased with his work, his tongue wags out of his mouth a la Michael Jordan.
In a corner, a new employee is shining a pair of men’s loafers. “Good, Mike, very good,” Geroulis tells him. Mike, who is over 60, appears to have finished the job when Geroulis quickly motions to the sides of the shoes. “The back just as well as the fronts,” he tells Mike with a short laugh. “In this shop, the only way is the right way.”
“My dad always used to tell me, ‘You shine the shoes, the backs just as well as the fronts,'” Geroulis says. “That’s what he taught me when I was a little guy. He would mention, ‘You work on shoes, you’ve got to give the customer the best work you can. You want to treat that customer the way you would want to be treated.’ That’s my dad. That’s where I learned it all.”
The day before, David Mengarelli came in and plopped a pair of shoes on the counter. “You used to be under the el didn’t ya?” Mengarelli asked.
“Yeah,” Geroulis said.
“I figured shit, they’re not here no more, you know? Then I just happened to be driving by and I said, ‘There it is!'”
“And you remembered,” Geroulis said. “Sure, Rogers Park Shoe Repair. We’ve been on this street 76 years.”
“Dad started it in 1921. See behind you, see the pictures?” Beaming, Geroulis pointed to a collection of mounted photographs on the wall. “See, there’s a picture of my dad here in 1921 underneath the el. That’s my dad in ’71. Here I am when I was a little guy,” he said, pointing to a photo of a small boy on a bicycle under the Morse Avenue tracks.
In the window near the entrance hangs a memorial plaque and a black-and-white photo of a man shining a pair of shoes. Geroulis showed it to another visitor after Mengarelli left. “See, it’s Peter J. Geroulis. I dedicated the shop to my dad.” Geroulis’s father died in 1979.
His sister Patricia, who keeps the books, is in the rack room where shoes are stored, hurriedly dashing off checks. It’s about 8:50 AM and she hasn’t much time to make it to her job at an Evanston senior center. She’s wearing sandals and temperatures are below zero today. Geroulis wants her to put her boots on.
He takes them off a shelf and says, “Let me buff these a little.” He strokes them with a horsehair brush and walks his sister to the front door. “Good day, Pat.”
She does good things for him, he says later; he returns the favor.
Back in the repair room, Geroulis binds a sole to a shoe using an automatic pounder that exerts 500 pounds of pressure. He doesn’t wear gloves. “I like to feel the work,” he says.
He places a pair of men’s dress shoes on the counter and their heels lie perfectly flat. That’s not the way they came from the factory, Geroulis says. “Factory doesn’t even balance the heels today. When they bring them to us, they stick out in the back. These shoes had a plastic heel, so I replaced that with a rubber heel. Now they’re balanced perfectly.”
“A lot of women buy Ferragamo and Charles Jourdan shoes and bring them in right away. Why? The manufacturers don’t extend the sole out enough at the toe.” Geroulis picks up a high-heeled shoe and shows scuffed leather near the tip. He blames it on the sole, which leaves about an eighth-inch of leather exposed under the toe.
Do manufacturers do it like this so people will have to buy more shoes? “Exactly,” Geroulis says. “Until they find me.” He laughs. “They bring them in and I put a leather tip on the underside of the shoe and extend the sole to the length of the toe. And not only that, but the manufacturers put plastic heel lifts on, and we put a better one on. I put a sort of nylon-rubberized heel lift so they’ll last much longer.”
He points to the soles of his own shoes, a pair of black Florsheim oxfords, and indicates what he calls the “center,” the front half of the sole. “They had like a rubber piece on the center; I put all leather in mine. I think it’s so much nicer.”
Geroulis says people mail him their shoes from as far away as Florida and California. “It really makes you feel good that you have these nice customers who don’t forget,” he says. “They go to another city or state and they can’t find a person who really takes pride in their work.”
He’s working on a black leather purse. “We’re going to put on another coat of dye,” he says, rattling a dye bottle. He sprays and the black leather begins gleaming. Geroulis wags his tongue.
He says a customer once disagreed with him on the quality of a dye job. “She says, ‘No John, I’m surprised at you. It’s not the right color.’ So I looked at her right in the eye and I told her I would redye them. I didn’t touch the shoes. I put them right back in the box. She comes back two days later and I showed her the same dye job. She was very, very happy.”
Now he’s scanning his shelves of Magix and New Color spray, looking for a color to match the shoes he’s working on. He plucks a bottle off the shelf and sprays its contents into the air. “That’s too light,” he says, trying another bottle. “Bingo!” After spraying the shoes, he picks up another pair, which he buffs. When he’s finished, he whistles with pleasure and puts them on a shelf in the rack room.
Geroulis’s shop is like a train: customers enter the reception room; behind that is the rack room, and from there you can see back into the repair room.
In 1980 the shop was still a one-room storefront under the el. “We had so many shoes in that shop,” Geroulis recalls. “We put them in bags, on shelves, we made more shelves. We could barely move.” So that year he bought and moved into a two-story brick building up the block, a former movie theater-turned-synagogue that Geroulis calls Cobblers Mall. (He has 7,000 square feet of space up for lease.) “I have a lot of friends. We brought stuff from the little shop underneath the el. We had a dolly and we rolled it over here. Right down Morse Avenue.” The new place is full of fond memories. Geroulis went to movies there as a kid; after an Orthodox congregation bought the building and turned it into a house of worship, he turned the lights on for them on the Sabbath.
“My dad came from Greece when he was 11 years old. He worked downtown for his uncle at a shoeshine parlor. By the time he was 14 he got a job at Marshall Field’s on State Street, shining shoes in the women’s department. That’s where he learned the trade. By the time he was 21 he had saved up enough money that he opened up Rogers Park Shoe Repair.”
Geroulis says his dad’s formal education ended with grammar school. At age 28 he married his 17-year-old sweetheart, Christine. In 1933, Geroulis’s sister was born. Geroulis followed in 1941.
“I was ten years old when I first started helping my dad. He had a cigar box and he cut out a little slit in it. Within a year I filled up the box with all sorts of tips I made from shining shoes. My mom says, ‘Why don’t we open up the box and John, this is your money. We’ll see what you want to do with it. Let’s see how much money we have saved here.’ We counted all the change. I had over $600 in tips. My mom says, ‘John, what are you going to do with this money?’ I said ‘Mom, I don’t like going to the next-door neighbor to watch TV by myself.’ So I bought the first TV set for our house. It was a Motorola, the biggest one the man had. That’s what started me working in the shop.”
Geroulis was drafted at age 23, in 1964, but was released after only three months because his dad was seriously ill with colon cancer. John ran the shop and went to school in the evenings; he wanted to become an accountant. But when his dad returned to work, he stayed on at the shop. “My father would say. ‘Keep on going to school, I know you want to take accounting.’ But back in my mind, I always loved the trade, helping my dad. And my dad, back in his mind, he wanted me to take over the business. I really believe that if he had pushed me to go into the trade I would have never liked it.”
Amy Lee Segami comes in to pick up a pair of boots. She’s an artist who has been bringing her shoes to Geroulis for 12 years. “There just aren’t too many people around who do this kind of work,” she says. “He takes so much pride in it.”
She teases Geroulis. “John, you ought to start thinking about training some people. You’re not old, but you should start thinking about this.”
Geroulis says he is. “When I was a young man I taught a younger person named Jim,” he’d told me earlier. “He lives in Tennessee. I think he’s a sheriff’s deputy now, but he’s thinking about coming back to Chicago. The shop would probably go to him. Maybe he would like the business. But I haven’t mentioned anything. Whatever he wants to do. Like my dad didn’t push me, I don’t want to push him.” o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): John Peter Geroulis photo by Cynthia Howe.