They hail him by a bunch of names: Daddy-O, Buddy, Big Fella, Mister Malcolm or just Malcolm. Whatever they call Malcolm Spaulding, they want the same thing when they step into his shop - a fair price and quality craftsmanship, whether it's to repair a busted boot heel or a worn-out pair of pumps or to remove a winter's worth of grime from prize sneakers.
Seems a small thing to expect, yet even in the year 2008, when chain stores gobble up more and more of the national landscape, the comforting attention paid by a familiar neighborhood shoe repairman still buys loyalty.
Spaulding, a Jamaican with graying dreadlocks, has such a loyal following that folks who long ago left the rough West Baltimore neighborhood continue to make trips from Randallstown, Glen Burnie and other outposts.
There they'll find him, at West Fayette and North Pulaski streets, pounding a new rubber tip onto a spike heel with precise hammer strikes or cutting a rubber sole just so. Or maybe he'll be gliding a remade boot heel against the ancient Landis belt-driven sander for a shiny smooth finish.
He looks up when they open the grate-covered door and step into his workshop, with its bone-rattling racket and sickly sweet aroma of glue, polish and singed rubber.
If it's a familiar face, as it often is, his placid expression is liable to give way to a laugh that's like an approaching thunderstorm. First comes a flash of a smile, followed a beat or two later by a deep rumble that shakes his burly chest.
One recent blustery morning, Keith Flanigan reaches the corner shop after a 20-minute drive from Randallstown in search of nothing more than black shoe polish.
Flanigan, 48, used to live nearby. A Baltimore County traffic worker in baggy jeans and backward Yankees cap, he calls the neighborhood "Crime City, USA." There is a lot of crime around here. Since January last year, 19 people have been killed in a 10-block radius, mostly young men gunned down. Community decay is on display in houses with warped boards for windows.
Then again, Spaulding's block looks better than many in Baltimore. Next door, Mr. Price keeps his Formstone rowhouse tidy, with awnings on both the first and second floors. Bon Secours Hospital sits cater-corner, lending some stability.
Spaulding, 61, says he has never had a problem here, never made an enemy in his 25 years at this shop. He's open from 10 a.m. "until it gets dark," and nobody seems worried about crime during the day. Not that a stickup man would find much in the till. "My money's so small, I couldn't even talk about it," Spaulding is quick to say in his Jamaican lilt.
"Three fiddy? Three fiddy?!" Flanigan shouts in response to Spaulding's stated price of $3.50 for a jar of Meltonian-brand black polish.
Spaulding replies with a smile that becomes a chuckle.
Flanigan is just kidding. If he wanted to save pennies or time, he could have gone to Security Square Mall, Wal-Mart or Rite Aid. But they are not Malcolm's Shoe Repair, and Malcolm Spaulding doesn't work there.
Polish in hand, Flanigan says goodbye and ventures back into the frigid morning.
Spaulding has been mending shoes for close to half a century. He started around 1960 as a boy in Kingston, Jamaica, when his father told him to go learn a trade. Cobbling is what he learned. A decade later, his sister spotted an ad seeking shoemakers willing to move to America. That is how he found himself in Baltimore, at 23, working for Selis Shoe Repair on Calvert Street.
In 1970 Selis had 16 area outlets, each with two shoe repairmen, recalls Bill Graves, Spaulding's partner on Calvert Street and now a shoe maestro at Dan Brothers in South Baltimore. By the late 1970s, Spaulding had his own shop on Pratt Street, until it was razed to make way for the Inner Harbor redevelopment.
In 1982 or so - exact dates elude him - he bought his current establishment at 2100 West Fayette. By then, he had met his wife, Eva, and was on his way to fathering six children, none of whom will take over the family business. He sometimes sleeps in a room behind the shop when not with Eva at their house off Reisterstown Road.
Even in the early '80s, the forces that now threaten his craft loomed: the growth of the sneaker culture; the rising tide of cheap, Chinese-made shoes that make it cheaper to buy a new pair than fix an old one, and improvements in high-end, rubber-soled shoes like Timberlands that, Spaulding notes ruefully, are made to last.
Today, Baltimore is left with a handful of old-school cobblers like Spaulding and Graves. Years ago, Spaulding took in $100 or more some days. Over a recent four-week stretch, he says he earned merely $500; even with his dedicated clientele, he has more idle time than he'd like. A few minutes after Flanigan leaves, another man strides in.
"Hiya, big fella," the man announces. "Ay, daddy-o, did you find them boots?"
This is Tony Thornton, from a few blocks away. He is not carrying any shoes but has come in search of someone else's. Specifically, he hopes to buy a pair of size 9 1/2 boots for cheap.
Thornton, 48, lost his right leg in 1986 after someone shot him with a double-barrel shotgun. He's wearing sneakers now, but says he needs boots to walk right on his prosthesis.
"I'm down to my last shoes. I'm in desperate need," he tells Spaulding. "My feet are on the ground."
A surprising number of customers never return for their shoes at Malcolm's Shoe Repair. A couple dozen pairs left over from last year gather dust on one shelf. Selling them helps Spaulding recoup his time and materials.
He sets two black boots on the counter before Thornton. "I think they will fit you," he says.
"How much you want for them?"
"Twenty dollars," says the cobbler, but quietly, as if he's embarrassed to name a price. But Thornton seems quite happy.
"Malcolm, I love you. Thanks." Another whoosh of cold air rushes in as Thornton rolls out.
Spaulding tends to his repair work during quiet stretches between customers, sometimes in silence, sometimes amid the din of machinery. Though he has trained a couple helpers, he does much of the work himself, such as the resoling he does one morning on a pair of size-9 Easy Spirit ankle-high black boots.
The night before, he had fashioned a new rubber sole using a hand-cranked cutting device and glued it to the bottom of the shoe. Now he trims away the excess rubber with a razor-like knife. Heart trouble has left him feeling tired but hasn't dulled his precision.
Then it's time for the Landis automated sander. He says it is over a hundred years old, which is probably not a big exaggeration. The rickety contraption rattles like a freight train, spinning four sanders, each of different roughness and hue - robin's egg blue, green, red, sky blue.
He moves the sole from one to the next as adroitly as a church organist. This adds an acrid twist to the headache-inducing chemical perfume already in the air.
Lastly, he polishes the boots with a spinning brush.
The next customer after Thornton is a social worker picking up his re-heeled deerskin shoes. He has barely left when in walks Latonya Davis, 33, a nursing assistant from Halethorpe.
"Hello, Mister Malcolm," she sings. She leans against the counter that separates the customer area, with its wood bench and Oriental-style carpet, from the cramped work space stained with polish and strewn with shoes.
"Long time, no see," she says.
It has been about a year since her last visit. But with a decade of good results and Spaulding's personal touch, she never considered taking her damaged black boots anyplace else.
"I went dancing one night. Heel came off," she explains to Spaulding. "That was a lot of dancing."
He studies the more diminished heel from a few different angles. Finally he announces his verdict. For $12 he'll fix both it and the other heel, since neither is in good shape.
Davis agrees but needs them back in two days. No problem, Mister Malcolm assures her. They'll be ready.