Alongside the new C Street Flats apartments, an old world shoemaker shop breathes quietly and deeply in the hub of the city's revitalized Arts and Entertainment District.
In front of the square white building, a vintage sign — A. M. Kroop and Sons, Inc. since 1925 — hints at the historical gem within. Time-lapse photography would catch few changes inside the small factory where antique molds and machinery, still in use, date back to 1916, and where the smell of leather and oil and the sight of wooden shoe forms lining the walls reflect a bygone era.
The shop's current proprietor, Columbia resident Randy Kroop, said she hasn't changed the painstaking 125-step process used by her grandfather since taking over the shop from her father, Morris, and her uncle, Israel, in the late 1970s.
The family legacy, she said, began in Latvia in the 19th century, where Kroop's great grandfather made boots for the Russian army. He taught his son, Adolph Michael Kroop, who immigrated to New York in 1907 and then relocated to Maryland.
Adolph Kroop had shops in Ellicott City and Baltimore before moving the family business to 371 Main St. in 1925.
Kroop was a young girl when A. M. Kroop and Sons settled permanently at 26 C St. in the late 1950s. Always a doer, she said her father let her make boxes and "do gluing" from the time she was about 6 years old.
"I was always here as a kid," Kroop, 62, said. "My sister hated it, but I loved it."
The shop's close proximity to Laurel Park racetrack created a demand for racing boots; Adolph Kroop filed a patent for a jockey's boot in 1936. Kroop said jockeys have frequented the shop since jockey Henry Erickson asked Adolph Kroop to fit his tiny feet in her grandfather's day.
George Woolf, who rode Seabiscuit to win the famous race at Pimlico in 1938, wore boots from A. M. Kroop and Sons made of kangaroo, which Kroop said is difficult to cut. The shop crafted about 25 pairs of authentic cowhide replicas for the 2002 movie, "Seabiscuit," which were worn by Gary Stevens, the actor who played Woolf, and other jockeys in the movie.
Eddie Arcaro (1916-1997) was also a regular customer, as was Willie Shoemaker (1931-2003), the American jockey who held the world record for professional jockey victories for almost 30 years. Kroop said Shoemaker's size 1½ wooden shoe form is still at the shop.
James Passmore, 52, the son of jockey William Passmore (1933-2009), said his dad bought all his boots from Kroop, and that he's been wearing Kroop's boots since he was 12 years old.
Passmore, who grew up in West Laurel, was in from Los Angeles visiting his mother in January and said he stopped in to make sure his measurements were up to date.
"Standing on the wood floors of A.M. Kroop and Sons, the smell of fine leather and history hit me like a diamond bullet," he said. "I consider myself extremely fortunate to know, and still wear, a small part of Randy and her family's legacy."
Passmore took home a pair of jodhpurs, he said, and ordered another one as well as a pair of boots.
Kroop said music celebrities Carly Simon, Madonna and Leon Redbone have also purchased custom-made boots from the shop. Redbone, whom Kroop said was "very nice," pulled up in a limousine.
Change of plans
As a youth, Kroop said she had no plans to go into the family business; she wanted to train as an occupational therapist. But out-of-state tuition was too costly, so the daughter of artist Lillian Kroop and craftsman Morris Kroop studied fine art at Towson College.
After graduating from what is now Towson University, Kroop said she designed furniture and loved sewing, carving and painting in oil and watercolor. In 1979, her father convinced her to take the reins of A. M. Kroop and Sons.
Life is quieter now than when the shop grossed $500,000 a year and employed 10 craftsmen in the 1980s, when a pair of jodhpurs that start at $375 cost roughly $16.50. Last in the line of Kroop shoemakers, Randy and one part-time employee, Rick Brown, who has been with her for more than 30 years, handle the business alone.
And that's exactly the way she said she wants it. Modernization would not only be expensive, potentially costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, it would diminish the quality and character of her product.
"That's not who we are," she said.
Kroop said she thinks wistfully about finding time to create fine art and sew again. But she doesn't want to sell the business outside the family and see the shop become commercialized; when she retires, breaking ties will be tough.
"I have wonderful clientele," Kroop said. "They are interesting people who appreciate the artistry and me."
A few weeks ago, Kroop said a 92-year-old World War II veteran came in to have leather knife holders that he'd purchased from her grandfather repaired.
"We sat and talked for at least an hour," Kroop said. "Rick says I should hang out a therapist's shingle."
Kroop said another sweet moment was watching a disabled gentleman — who came in to her shop with assistance using two canes — walk out on his own wearing a pair of boots that Kroop had put great care into crafting, intuitively reinforcing the ankles and doubling up the liners to provide extra support.
"I cried," she said. "And I was able to use the same design again for another elderly gentleman who was having trouble walking."
Kroop said, she enjoys the relationships she's developed with other Laurel trades folk.
Ronald Sargent, owner of Outback Leather, said he's known Kroop for the 40 years he's been on Main Street.
"After her dad retired, we have helped each other over the years and traded business practices," he said.
Marilyn Johnson of the Marilyn Johnson Sewing Design Studio said Kroop is her "go-to-person" for repair service on the costume shoes and boots that she rents out. Johnson said Kroop makes belts for her and helps with the "heavy industrial stuff" such as grommets shedding.
"In Europe, a lot of people go to shoemakers," Johnson said. "I love the quality and care that Randy puts into her projects."
Johnson said she's saving up to commission a pair of boots for herself.
"They'll last so long, I can probably name them in my will," she said.
Kroop said the longevity of her products speaks to why business has slowed. She said it can be hard to make a living when they don't need replacing, or even repair, for decades.
Last summer, John Cheatham came in from Middleburg, Va., to have a pair of thin calfskin paddock boots repaired that he'd purchased from Kroop's in the 1980s. He ordered a new pair of pebble-grained calf paddock boots, as well.
"The boots were fitted and made in a way you do not see outside of bespoke shoemakers," Cheatham said. "They are comfortable, good looking, and of a quality you can only get from well-trained craftsmen who are proud of their work."
Monday through Thursday, Kroop arrives at the shop at 5:30 a.m. accompanied by her labradoodle, Kloe. A. M. Kroop and Sons opens at 7 and closes at 3, and Kroop works by appointment on weekends.
"I just love coming in here," she said. "My dad and my grandfather are here."