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Thursday, June 8, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Craftsman with sole

Special to The Seattle Times

At Dave Page's shop, the regulars drop by every decade or so.

"A fellow, 76 years old, picked up his boots last week," said Page, widely recognized as the country's grand pooh-bah of hiking-boot repair. "This was the third time we've resoled those boots. He bought them back in the '60s, and they're still beautiful.

"He was walking very sprightly when he got them back," Page added.

"Just before he left he turned and said, `See you again in a few years.' "

In the interim, Page has ample work to keep himself - plus his staff of eight specialists - busy. Page, a former University of Washington history professor, is the king of cobblers, a master technician of outdoor recreational footwear who services an international clientele.

Hiking boots, mountaineering boots, telemark boots, rock shoes, trail runners, even Birkenstocks - Page and his crew can breathe new life into any of them.

Page's inconspicuous one-story shop (plus basement) set amid the boutiques in Fremont has long served as a haven for lost soles. His workmanship is so reliable that REI sends him boot-repair requests from all of its 56 U.S. stores. Eastern Mountain Sports sends Page its major resoling projects. Other retailers (Blue Ridge Mountain Sports, Galyan's, Cabela's and more) also turn to him for repairs.

European manufacturers such as Asolo, Vasque, Merrell, Technica, Montrail and La Sportiva route domestic warranty work to his shop. Raichle, based in Switzerland, simply sends all of its warranty work to Page.

World-renowned expert

Page, 61, accepts all manner of challenges. He examined the boots found last year on the corpse of George Mallory, the legendary climber who died on Mount Everest in 1924. (An author and cultural anthropologist wanted help determining who made the boots.) He put a shine on boots used by a ranger at Crater Lake National Park. He helped restore boots that had been mangled by a leather-loving parrot in Costa Rica.

Page operates his shop six days a week and estimates his crew goes through 150 Vibram soles per week in addition to an uncounted number of soles from Skywalk,

Vibram's chief competitor.

"I like what I do," said the soft-spoken Page. "I like the business. I feel very comfortable with it. I like working with the product, working with my hands. I spend a lot of time on the telephone or doing paperwork, but I'll still spend time working on the product. There are still some things I do myself."

Page was teaching American history at the UW when he spent a summer in Austria cutting leather uppers for a boot manufacturer. A climber who prefers summiting the three peaks of Mount Index more than climbing Mount Rainier, Page was frustrated by the absence of a local cobbler who specialized in technical footwear.

He elected to step into the void himself in 1969, creating a shop in the basement of his Green Lake home.

"Everyone was dropping out," Page said, recalling the psychedelic heritage of the day. "It was cool to work with your hands. It took off right away. It's a cottage industry that has gone slightly berserk."

Page soon moved into a warehouse-like setting near Gas Works Park, then 14 years ago switched to Fremont when, he says, "rents were cheap." He has pondered shutting his walk-in shop. "More than 80 percent of our business gets shipped to us, so we don't need a retail space in a growing area," he said. "There's no hurry, though."

A dwindling trade

Page says he is only one of three cobblers in the nation who have kept pace with modern boot technology (which involves using exotic adhesives to bond leather uppers to tub-like, thermoplastic "unit-soles") while retaining the skills to repair older, stitch-welted mountaineering boots used in the 1960s and '70s. His only peers: Cobbler and Cordwainers in New England and Rocky Mountain Resole in Colorado.

"We have less competition than we had 10 years ago," said Page, whose brother Harvey has been on his staff for 26 years. "In the late '80s, you could probably find 10 or 12 decent places where you could get hiking boots resoled in the United States. Now it's three.

"Shoe repair, since the days of Jesus' sandals, has been about putting a slab of material on the bottom of footwear, then trimming and smoothing around it," Page said.

When Page began his business, there were only two Vibram soles. Now there are 170 different models of hiking-boot soles.

Not everyone should repair their old boots, Page says. "Boots that cost less than $100 are disposable footwear," said Page, noting that a standard hiking-boot resoling runs $50 to $60. (Birkenstocks start at $22.) "If you paid less than $140 for boots and want them resoled, you're making an emotional decision, not a financial one. Boots are great companions you've shared great adventures with; it's not easy to let them go."

Page, who takes "Zen hikes" with his 7-year-old daughter, Nina, enjoys life as a craftsman.

"It's not like e-business," he said. "You're dealing with leather and rubber soles. It's all very tangible, and that's part of the romance of all this. To know people come to you for help and advice is reassuring. The feedback is very positive. I feel like I'm doing something right."

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A cobbler's tips

Keep boots dirt-free

Dirt is the big enemy of boots. Leather is porous, like a fine latticework. If you leave dirt on your boots from one hike to the next, grit in the pores will grind away as the leather flexes. That can shorten the life of your boots. Solution: Clean boots after every trip using water and a vegetable brush or dish brush. Your boots can handle a good scrubbing. The things you brush against in the mountains have a lot more impact than a dish brush.

Store boots dry

To dry boots more quickly, hang them upside down. (Try a shoe rack, or just prop them in position.) To hasten the process, stuff boots with single sheets of newsprint. Change the newsprint daily. Remove insoles or inserts while drying and during storage.

Waterproofing

Don't slather it on. When boots look dry or pale, apply a modest amount of silicone-based waterproofing. Don't overdo it; use just enough so the leather can absorb what it needs. After treating boots, Page suggests letting them sit in the sun for five or 10 minutes (no more) to let the treatment soak in. (Don't blast boots with a hair dryer.) Beware: Excessive waterproofing can weaken the adhesives used on modern boots, causing soles to delaminate.

Avoid excessive heat

Don't dry boots close to a fire; doing so can turn leather brittle or make it shrink. Don't store boots in a hot attic or a sun-exposed vehicle. "A car trunk in Tucson, Ariz., can get up to 125 or 130 degrees," Page says. "If you leave a modern boot inside a hot trunk, you can take your fingernail and get an edge started between the upper and the sole. If that happens, you can take the sole off with your bare hands."

Eyeing new boots?

If you're eyeing new outdoor footwear, Page recommends not buying more boot than you need. If you anticipate nothing more demanding than day hikes, select a lightweight shoe. Higher priced boots will deliver fewer seams and a nicer finish inside and out. Your chief goal: Get a proper fit. "Take some extra time to get something that feels good," Page said.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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