Billie Insley

Billie Insley is pictured in his Cat's Paw shoe repair shop holding the sole of a boot he repaired. He's been repairing shoes for 63 years. (Algerina Perna, Baltimore Sun / October 15, 2012)

Billie Insley sits in a red leatherette chair at Your Shoe Service in Linthicum, smoking a Wave cigarette and facing a stack of stuff packed for moving or disposal: sheets of leather, boxes of fresh heels and soles, some bearing the red-and-black label of the old Cat's Paw Rubber Co. His life's work is nearly done.

In a matter of days, they'll take out the last of the heavy stitching, sanding and polishing machines that have been here as long as he has, since Dwight D. Eisenhower was president and the Baltimore Orioles were the newest thing in the American League. You don't have to ask how Insley feels about leaving the shop after 58 years. Just step in the door and he tells you.

"I loved every minute of it," says Insley. "I hate to go. But when you get to be 82, you got to go."

A few weeks ago, he posted signs in the window saying he was closing the place Oct. 31, asking customers to call his home to make arrangements to pick up their shoes or boots. He's at the shop now just a few hours a week, taking no new work except for repairs that can be done quickly and with the equipment he still has on hand.

"It's going to hurt bad" to leave, he says. "It ain't like I'm not going to see some of the people, but …"

Insley has worked since 1954 at the Shipley Linthicum Shopping Center, where his brother, Joseph, opened the shop in 1949. That was before throwaway shoes and sneakers that change styles in a flash. That was before their trade started to fade away, from about 100,000 shoe repair stores during the Great Depression to fewer than a tenth of that number today, according to the Shoe Service Institute of America.

Even as other cobblers went out of business, Insley says he became known as the "Mayor of Linthicum Shopping Center."

"He'll definitely be missed, that's for sure," says Kathy Williams, who stopped by the shop one recent morning with her husband, Dan, who grew up in the neighborhood and remembers bringing his shoes here when he was a teenager in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

"When I was going to school, the big thing was getting a pair of shoes and getting cleats put on them," Dan Williams says. He'd come here, to Billie.

Now living in Boiling Springs, S.C., the Williamses were in town for a family wedding at Michael's Eighth Avenue in Glen Burnie, where Kathy broke a tip off the spiky heel of a pair of black patent leather shoes. She immediately thought of Insley.

"In the 40 years we've been married, anytime we needed shoes repaired, we'd come here," she says.

The Williamses are headed back to South Carolina in a day, but they dropped off the shoes a little after 10 in the morning and went on their way, saying they'd be back about noon.

Insley quickly finds a couple of fresh heel tips, sets the shoe heels up one at a time on an iron stand and nails the tips home. He sands the sides smooth on a machine that takes up much of one wall — a contraption with many wheels and levers that looks suited for a museum exhibition on the Industrial Revolution. He finishes the job with dabs of black Fiebing's Leather Dye. All for $5.

"I call them my family," he says of his customers. "Anybody in this world who loves their job more," he says — well, it's hard to imagine. "It's always something different. The shoes have changed so much since 1947. Used to be wooden heels. Now everything is plastic."

Sometimes that means the heels and soles cannot be replaced, but, he says, "I like a good challenge."

He can repair a leather coat by slipping a matching swatch behind the tear, affixing it with leather cement and tamping it down so smooth that all you see is "teeny seams," he says.

"He's a cobbler, a true cobbler," says Jude Sklanka, a friend from the neighborhood who is helping Insley clean out the shop. "This area of Anne Arundel County is losing something it will never have again. It's sad. Now people are coming in and realizing we lost part of our community."

George Schneider, for instance, stops by after getting his hair cut next door.

"Who's going to be here as a shoe repair?" he asks Insley.

"Nobody," says Insley.

"Nobody?" says Schneider, who has been a customer of Insley's since 1968. "I'm going to miss you."

Sklanka dismantled the wooden shelves, bought all the stock and the equipment, and is taking everything out, piece by piece. Some stuff he has hauled to the county dump. Some supplies and equipment, he's selling to a shoemaker in Rockville. He's putting some of the equipment in storage, and then, he says, "I have no idea what I'm going to do with it."

A lifelong bachelor, Insley is not quite sure what he's going to do, either. He's been doing this work since another brother, who went by the initials L.J., asked him to join him in his shoe-repair shop in Glen Burnie in 1947. Years later, Insley was drafted and spent a couple of years in the Army, then returned to join Joseph here in Linthicum in 1954. Since 1957, he's been running the shop on his own.

After a stroke two years ago made it much harder for him to stand, however, he knew his work days were numbered. A couple of months ago, with his left leg getting worse, he said, "OK, I'm going to have to call it quits."

Maybe he'll do some work around the house. Maybe he'll take up fishing. He hadn't made other plans.

"I intended on staying here until I was 108," he says.

arthur.hirsch@baltsun.com

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