By Jaed Coffin
Photographed by Dave Dostie
Dick LaCasse was swiveling between sewing, gluing, and finishing machines, fixing beat-up shoes in his shop in downtown Skowhegan, when a man wearing a camo jacket dropped a pair of heavy-duty boots on the counter. “You resoled these last year and they came apart,” he said. “Impossible,” Dick replied. After they’d cracked a few jokes and swapped a few stories, they circled back to the boots. “I’ll have them done in a week,” Dick said, estimating $15 for the job. “I don’t care if it’s July,” the customer said.
Loggers’, contractors’, and millworkers’ boots are most of what Dick sees these days, although that wasn’t the case back in the ’60s and ’70s. As a kid, he shined shoes at his father’s cobbling shop, across the street from the current storefront, when it was common to resole 30 to 40 pairs of dress shoes in a week. Back then, shoe manufacturing was still big in Maine — the industry once employed some 50,000 Mainers, who made the kinds of high-quality shoes a person would wear for years, requiring only occasional tune-ups at the ubiquitous local shoe repair. But in the 1980s, the American shoe industry started outsourcing. Shoes got cheaper, meant to be worn until worn out, then thrown away. As went manufacturing work in Maine, so went repair work (although some smaller outfits, plus L.L.Bean and sneaker company New Balance, still make footwear here). These days, Dick resoles just three or four sets of dress shoes a week, and across the state, maybe half a dozen repair shops remain.
Dick LaCasse took over LaCasse Shoe Repair from his father, who started the business in the 1940s, in a shop across the street from the current location. Tom LaCasse, Dick’s younger brother, still uses their father’s original Singer sewing machine in Tom Finn Shoe Repair, a cobbler’s shop on downtown Augusta’s Water Street that Tom bought in 1984.
Dick didn’t always aim to follow in his father’s footsteps. In junior high, he dug worms and crawlers for local bait shops. After studying biology in college, he taught high school, but it didn’t take. He also owned and managed several apartment buildings, while sometimes picking up shifts at his grandfather’s restaurant, the Village Candle Light. By the time his father started talking about retiring, Dick was 23 years old, with a young son and another on the way. “There was no fooling around,” he recalls. “I had people to support. I had to get right down to business.”
For the first couple of decades, he worked six days a week, 8:30 A.M. to 6 P.M., just like his father had. As time went on, he eased up a bit, clocking out by noon on Saturdays. His younger brother, Tom, joined him in the early ’80s, but they realized they could make better money by opening another location. Tom now runs a shop in Augusta, working with their father’s original Singer sewing machine.
Dick, who’s 66, doesn’t think he has more than three or four years left in the business. His wife has encouraged him to hire help, but he likes working alone, and it doesn’t seem there’s anyone interested in learning the trade anyway. His three sons have their own careers — one as a pharmacist, one in the food industry, and one who makes wooden baseball bats down the street.
Business has been slow since the pandemic started, but Dick’s shelves are still full of repair jobs: a resole of black-and-yellow boots that belong to a pro wrestler, a re-stitch of a boxing speed bag, a Birkenstock with the strap ripped off. His favorite work is orthopedic — making shoes of different sole heights look the same is rewarding. Among his more conspicuous clients, he says, are the pole dancers who bring in their busted high heels. Occasionally, customers forget to come back. One guy, with the fancy wingtips, moved out of state only to call eight years later to find that, yes, the soles had been replaced, and Dick still had them.
And though it’s rare, Dick turns away customers if their shoes are beyond repair. “I’ll tell them if they’re wasting their money,” he says. “I don’t get any satisfaction in fixing it if it’s not gonna last.”