Bob Wood, owner of Dawson’s Shoe Repair Shop, never went to college. But the hard-working, old-fashioned businessman might offer some good lessons for today’s corporate executives.
While leading service companies spend millions of dollars to train their employees in the latest strategies to lure demanding and fickle customers, Wood has conquered Columbia residents for almost four decades with a single, inexpensive skill: authentic kindness.
“He really cares about other people,” said Jaimi Dowdell, a clogging dancer and former MU student. Dowdell had her dancing shoes repaired at Dawson’s Shop, at 209 S. Ninth St., for more than two years, until she moved to St. Louis. She still dances but hasn’t yet found a shop quite like Wood’s.
“When he asks ‘how are you doing?’ he really wants to know how are you doing,” Dowdell said. “It is not just a fake question.”
That is because Wood, 58, believes doing business is about much more than making money. “My goal is not be rich, it never was,” said Wood as he stood beside his black 79-year-old cash register. “I just love to help people.”
People seem to return the affection. “I just think he is a great and friendly guy,” said Columbia resident Lory Loeb, 44, after dropping by the store to leave three pairs of men’s shoes. “I like the way I feel when I step in the door.”
On a recent morning, Wood and his father, 79, were moving a heavy, brand-new machine that will cut down on the smell that some would say has given his shop part of its charm. “There are some people who like it, but some say it is too strong,” he said.
Part of the experience of bringing shoes to Dawson’s Shop is to step back in time. “To me, going to the store is like visiting a small town, long ago,” said Dowdell. “It is like things used to be.”
Few things have changed since the shop opened 49 years ago.
There are no computers or sophisticated technology, just old machines, rustic polishing devices and hundreds of worn-out shoes, awaiting attention or tagged and awaiting the trip home.
The shop is part of the historical mosaic of downtown. “My family has been going there since I was a little child,” said Columbia resident Beth Kopine. “If it dies, there will never be anything like it again.”
A third-generation shoe repairman, Wood has kept the family business running since 1968. When his father came to Columbia, there were 19 shoe repair shops, he said. Today just three are listed in the Yellow Pages telephone directory. These days, people “just throw things away,” Dowdell said.
Wood also blames the emergence of plastic instead of leather for soles for a decline in business. Molded rubber or plastic shoes, which have soles that last longer and cannot be repaired, are more and more popular among young people.
George Wren, 51, owner of Wren’s Birkenstock Inc., at 1009 E. Broadway, and Wood’s main competitor, said another reason the number of shoe repairers is decreasing in mid-Missouri is because young people are not interested in the craft.
“Most of the shoe repairers were from an older generation and are now retired,” said Wren, who arrived in town in 1981. “It is very possible that some day the shoe repair business will disappear from Columbia.”
But Wren and Wood still have many customers.
People from Kansas City, Fulton and other cities, where shoe repair shops are now history, come here to fix their shoes. Many of them have spent $100 or more on fancy shoes with unique styles that are hard to replace.
The last year has been uncertain for Wood. He faces the prospect of moving his shop to another location because the place he has rented since 1984 belongs to the Missouri Theatre, which is located next to the shop and is raising funds to enlarge the theater.
For now, Wood is leasing year-by-year — he just signed next year’s lease, and he has not received any official notice that it is time to move on.
“I am going to worry next year,” he said. “I am happy here right now.”
Wood’s price to repair heels starts at $6; soles range from $20 to $60, tears are $4, and accessories, such as laces, are priced at up to $3.
Depending on the problem, he can take one or two days to finish the job. His father, Estel, 79, helps him many afternoons.
“He just gets the job done fast,” said Tony Cunningham, 50, supervisor at Columbia Water and Light. “He does great work but I prefer him for the timing thing.” Cunningham’s old work boots were back in good order just two days after he left them with Wood.
Like his friendly ways, his prices also seem like something out of the past, and some customers tell him he doesn’t charge enough.
“One day I brought him cookies because he wouldn’t charge me to nail my taps back on at all,” Dowdell said. “It was overly generous, and the only thing I could think of doing was baking him cookies.”
“I cannot charge more because people have to spend on other things, like groceries or paying the school for their children,” said Wood, who says his policy is to turn a customer into a friend. “You can earn money, but you cannot buy a friendship.”
Wood doesn’t advertise because he doesn’t need to, he said. “The best advertisement for the service businesses are word of mouth,” he said. “Those things (advertisements) cost money, and the cheaper I keep my cost, the cheaper the price I can offer.”
Certainly Wood would like to have more customers, especially in the summer when he has less work because people toss their hard-sole shoes for sandals, flip-flops or sneakers. But he doesn’t let it worry him. “I know there is always going to be somebody who wants to fix their beloved shoes.”