A sole man

Sterlin Sasser demonstrates how to remove the sole of a boot at his shop in downtown Clovis. (CNJ Staff Photo: Andy DeLisle)

By Marlena Hartz: CNJ staff writer

Not all shoes can get a life extension, even in his hands. Grabbing a cowboy boot embellished with turquoise stitching, Sterlin Sasser refers to welt — the place on a shoe, he explains, where the sole is stitched to the body.

“Ninety percent of shoes with no welts can’t be repaired,” he said, smoke from his cigarette trailing across his shop.

“I can’t tell you over the phone whether a shoe can or can’t be repaired,” Sasser said.

Not many people know the parts of a shoe, he explains — the welt, the eyelet (where a shoelace gets strung), the heel, the sole.

Sitting in a plastic lawn chair in the back of his narrow shop, his slight figure is drowned by cowboy boots strewn across the floor and piles of shoes on shelves— black heels, leather sandals, a child’s ankle boots.

Mostly, Sasser repairs the worn out boots of farmers and ranchers, he said.
His career as a shoe repairman is a sojourn from the golf course, where he has passed most of his days and where he intends to return when the weather gets good. Sets of golf clubs lean against the counter in his shop in waiting.

Golf is his true love. But as the owner and sole employee of Sasser’s Boot and Shoe Repair in downtown Clovis, Sasser holds a 98-year tradition in his hands.

“I have to stay (in business) at least another two years. To make it 100 years in Clovis,” said Sasser, with a laugh.

Sasser’s way into the trade was carved by his forefathers.

In 1906, his grandfather moved from Hereford to Clovis. Two years later, he opened up a business crafting and repairing wagon tops. When cars replaced wagons, he patched up canvas tops for model A and T Fords.

The business continued to evolve. Sasser’s father fashioned ladies button-top shoes and boots.

Tastes were different back then, remembers Sasser, a lanky man with a weathered face.

“Custom-made boots are comfort — not what people want today. They are made to fit the foot, not with all the fancy gizmos,” Sasser said.

His father abandoned boot making suddenly, Sasser recalled.

“He finished the best pair of boots he had ever made. The customer complained that he had missed a couple of stitches — which happens in any business. My father threw them (the boots) up … He said, ‘That’s the last pair of boots I’ll ever make’,” Sasser said.

According to Sasser, he kept his word and sold western wear instead.

As a boy, Sasser observed his father and filed away boot-making and repairing techniques. But a conversation between his father and a salesman swayed him from the business of shoes.

“Will your son take over?” Sasser heard the salesman inquire.

“‘No,’” he heard his father answer,“ ‘I don’t want him bending over other people’s shoes.’”

Sasser officially turned from the family business at the age of 14 when he discovered golf, a sport his father also loved. As a teen, he worked as a caddy and, later, in a local golf shop.

“Golf had engulfed me,” he said.

Following a stint in the Air Force, Sasser was a club professional and taught golf across the country. He did so for almost two decades, he said.

Eventually, an injured back returned him to the shoe business, he said.

“My back looks like this,” he said twining his fingers together.

Years earlier, his mother had sold the building on Mitchell Street that housed the family shop. In 2001, the landlord forced Sasser to move the shop elsewhere, he said.

Today, his tiny store is overshadowed by bigger, more colorful downtown shops. No fancy signs beckon customers, just a sketch of cowboy boots.

Old equipment purchased by his forefathers dominates the cluttered shop. Sasser still uses the equipment for grinding, polishing and stitching shoes.

These days, business is slow, Sasser said. And near the holidays, business crawls.

“Around Christmas, do you want a used pair of boots or a new pair of boots?” Sasser quips.

Nonetheless, Sasser boasts of loyal customers.

One of them is Homer Tankersley Jr., who sends shoes to Sasser for repair because it’s “convenient.”

“He does good work,” Tankersley added.

“A good pair of shoes costs money,” Sasser said. “Repairs, even though they cost you, are not that expensive,” he said.

Yet, the future of shoemaking is not so bright, according to Sasser.
“This is not a Fortune 500 company,” he said.

“In the next 20 to 25 years, it (the shoe repair industry) will go so far downhill, it won’t be worthwhile,” said Sasser, who admits sometimes he has to stretch to make ends meet.

“I hope I don’t have to take this equipment with me to my grave. I’d like to be able to sell it.”