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Thursday, September 1, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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World-Class Repairs Right From The Sole -- Climbers, Hikers Love Renowned Cobbler Dave Page's Work As Much As He Does

Michael Fabiano, importer of finely crafted Italian hiking boots, listened patiently at a recent outdoor retail show as a customer whined about minor boot-fit problems: Not quite enough space right here, by the big toe.

Fabiano nodded, then immediately offered the services of his company's vaunted Italian boot craftsmen. "Send them back to us," he said. "We'll fix 'em." He paused. "Where do you live?"

"Seattle," the customer said.

"Seattle! Oh. Just take 'em to Dave Page."

It might seem strange for a lord of the boot-building realm to concede that a non-assuming Seattle cobbler could better the time-honed skills of Italian craftsmen. But not to customers of Page, whose small Fremont boot shop is known around the globe as The Place for repairs, refitting or resoling of hiking, skiing and climbing boots.

Fabiano's instant, assured response: "Take 'em to Dave Page," has been passed from climber to climber, skier to skier, hiker to hiker, on mountaintops from North Bend to Nepal for more than two decades. Page, whose shop turned 25 this spring, is the first name on the list when outdoor specialty shops refer customers for repair or warranty work. And often the last. Much of the resoling, reshaping and repairing done daily by Page and seven employees simply isn't done anywhere else.

If it is, manufacturers and customers insist, it's not done with the same degree of meticulous care. Frequent customers, many of whom have brought their favorite hiking boots to Page three, four, even five times for new soles and repairs (an average resole costs about $50), have a cult-like devotion to North America's premier bootsmith.

Most were referred by friends. When they phone Page, they're pleasantly shocked to find that Page not only understands the problem, but knows how to solve it.

"New three-pin sole for a Merrell Snowfield? No problem," Page will say into the receiver. A week after the caller's downtrodden boots arrive UPS, they're on they're way back, good as new, probably better. Guaranteed. Another happy customer.

Years ago, that adoration spread from the personal level to the corporate. Page now is listed as THE authorized repair center for most major U.S. and European boot makers. He also is the authorized repairman for nearly 40 REI stores and dozens of Eddie Bauer outlets.

Page, 54, drank in all that praise along with a single latte, (nonfat) outside a Fremont coffee shop this week and broke into a proud-papa smile.

"I'm proud of what we do," he said. "This is kind of arrogant in a way, but we do very well. We do, I think, the best boot repairing in the world."

He paused, swallowed, smiled. "I guess this is what I do when I grow up."

If the nation's outdoors men and women have their way, it is something he will do until he grows very old.

That sits well with Page, who, at 54, recently witnessed the birth of his first child, Nina, now 17 months.

On the counter of Page's cramped cobbler shop, which smells of sweet leather, acrid glue and pungent rubber, is a photo of Nina in fist-sized hiking boots. Italian made, of course, the finest materials.

That was a natural, says Page, who is something of an adopted Italian himself. His wife, Cathy Priccot, comes from an Italian family and the couple visits Italy at least once a year. It is a pilgrimage Page has made for much of his life: as a young man, for climbing and exploring; later, to watch and learn from Italian bootmakers.

Page says he always has learned by observing, then tinkering.

That's exactly how he wet his toe in the world of cobblery 25 years ago. Page recalls sitting high atop a mountain after a climb with a friend, fingering worn climbing boots and lamenting that the only suitable repair shop in North America was in Colorado.

"You'd send him your boots, and you wouldn't see them for six months," he said.

Had to be a better way, he figured. In his spare time, Page, a Western Washington University history graduate then teaching at the University of Washington, would retreat to his basement and destroy boots.

He became the Dr. Hannibal Lecter of hiking shoes. He heated, torqued, twisted, tore and cut, learning what made the sole of a boot tick, and what connected that sole to the leather upper. Soon, he began repairing his own boots. Then his friends' boots. And so on.

Today, Vibram, the legendary Italian sole manufacturer, considers Page the most prolific - and effective - expedition footwear repairman on the planet.

All the while, Page's business has managed to maintain the small-town, friendly, quick-turn-around service that made Page famous among local climbers in the first place.

He credits his shop's dual big-scale, small-town success to his employees, each of whom fills a specialized niche. Page, when he's not on the phone counseling frazzled boot owners, continues to perform a full range of repairs himself. His brother, Harvey, joined the shop 19 years ago and quickly specialized in leather-boot "fitting" - patching sections of boots chewed up by dogs, marmots or tree-limb shredders. His finely detailed fitting work has become legendary.

Six other employees have watched, learned and become experts themselves.

Despite his shop's reputation in outdoor-gear circles, Page in recent years has drawn a new audience: Birkenstock sandal owners. Page resoles Birkies for $22, and business has grown from a trickle to a flood.

Growth constantly lurks on the horizon, and Page, a fiercely independent man who has walked a fine line between small-and-efficient and huge-and-profitable for years, again is wrestling with how much is too much. REI is attempting to lure him to relocate in its new mega-store in downtown Seattle. And more than one foreign bootmaker is attempting to put Page's skills to use in boot manufacturing.

Profitable as that might be, it all just might stay on the drawing boards, Page said. Quality of life for him, his family and employees must come first.

Recently, Page and Pricott have made more time to take young Nina into the mountains, renewing a love affair with Washington's high country that prompted Page to enter the footwear business in the first place. And Page still finds time for alpine climbs with old pals.

They revisit easy, "old-friend" hiking spots: "We call them `Zen hikes,' " he said. "No time schedule and no particular destination."

Give him that, the tools of his trade and a place to work, and Dave Page, cobbler, is likely to keep that wonderfully simple title for a long time.

"I like what I do," he says. "I fix boots. I still do a lot of the rock shoes myself. I've thought about that - a lot.

"I don't have many days, if any, when I still don't enjoy going to work."

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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