As bustling shoppers whiz by the storefronts at Owings Mills Metro Centre, things are a little quieter inside Cobbler & Co. shoe repair, where a muffled tapping and the smell of leather greets customers who enter.
Ellicott City resident Sunny Yoo stands behind the counter of the his family's business, using a small French hammer to form new leather soles on a customer's shoes.
Without losing focus on the job before him, the 27-year-old cobbler said he's come a long way in his industry over the last 10 years, recently winning a silver medal in the 2016 German Shoe Repair contest.
The contest judges cobblers on how well they rebuild shoes into new condition, Yoo said.
"I never entered a contest like this before," Yoo said, after learning he had won earlier this month. "I wasn't expecting to win anything. I was doing it to upgrade my skills and see where I was."
In December, Yoo submitted to the contest one repaired shoe—leaving the other untouched—that belonged to an originally tattered pair of Allen Edmonds dress shoes that he purchased on eBay. The process included removing and replacing the shoe's sole, and then stitching it back together.
Little did he know that he was throwing his repair skills into the ring with more than 40 cobblers throughout the United Stated and Europe.
"I was shaking," he said.
Yoo said he joined his parents, Jae and Lucia Yoo, working at the family business's former location in Owings Mills Mall, as an assistant shoe shiner during his freshmen year at Centennial High School. When the family reached a crossroads in hiring help, Yoo volunteered to give cobbling a shot.
"I went to work with them every spring break and summer vacation," he said. "As I got better, they let me manage the store for a day or two. The only thing I did was the shoe polishing. I couldn't even repair women's or men's heels until I was in my senior year of high school."
Three years after Yoo graduated high school, his family opened a second location, in Arundel Mills Mall, in 2011, where he was promoted to store manager, he said.
The art of shoe repair is tough to teach, Yoo said, adding that he found it easier to watch his father remove, sand, shape, glue and press soles and heels. He then practiced repairs using worn shoes he bought on eBay or at Goodwill.
"I just got into the work [and] I got surprisingly better at it," he said.
Yoo began learning new strategies and techniques from professional cobblers by posting photos, questions and comments of his repairs on Shoe Repair International's Facebook page as well as ongoing conversations with representatives of the Shoe Service Institute of America.
The nonprofit organization has existed for 112 years, creating awareness and programs designed to support the shoe repair industry, said Sandra Verbruggen, the institute's vice president.
Yoo is among the 560 members of the Shoe Repair International's Facebook page, Verbruggen said, adding that Yoo is very active on the page — a fact she's happy to note, considering that the industry is diminishing.
"We see less shops in the United States and worldwide," Verbruggen said. "There will be 10 closing and one opening. The [closing] numbers are climbing, but we do see people like Sunny coming in."
Yoo's success in the German international contest is an amazing accomplishment, Verbruggen said, adding that she hopes he will participate in the American shoe repair contest next year.
"He's been working so hard," said Yoo's fiancé, Maria Naluz. "He really wants to make people happy when they pick up their shoes. He treats [the shoes] as if they were his. He's really working hard to meet all of [his customers'] expectations."
"In the future, I think I'm going to practice more and enter more contests," he said. "It's a dying art. A lot of people are retiring. If I have a chance, I want to open a franchise business that keeps the quality of work there."