Though my dad is not real big on sending our young men out to die, he does still really like guns. He has bought and sold several over the years. Although I don't consider myself much of a military type or even a gun type, as I've gotten older, I realize that I do have some of my dad's more eccentric traits. And I think that's part of why I am pursuing shoemaking. And what I mean is this:
Many of my memories of my dad are of him pursuing quite heavily some fairly eccentric curiosities and interests. There's the time when I was maybe in 3rd grade that he was quite heavy into classical music. He and my sister got cellos while my brother Graham and I got violins. We all began taking lessons at the Flint Institute of Music and, if I'm not mistaken, I think we even performed a couple stringed quartets for family reunions. I'm not sure how good we sounded. But it was fun!
Then there was the time when he got really into gardening. He plowed up some ground in our backyard and planted tomatoes. I'm not exactly sure why, but I can remember him and my Uncle Larry buying a case of Milwaukee's Best and dousing the tomato plants with beer. I assume this had something to do with getting very juicy tomatoes.
Fast forward a year or two and he got quite interested in beekeeping. He purchased a wooden bee hive and began tending a fully populated bee colony which he kept in the far back corner of our backyard. For awhile, he would regularly put on his full protective bee suit and arm himself with the bee smoker, as he prepared to do whatever was required to tend the bees and produce some great honey. The image of that in my head looks something like this:
Maybe about five years ago, I began noticing that I was becoming obsessively interested in some rather arcane pursuits. Initially, I had this pretty intense urge to learn how to make soap. I got all the oil, and lye, and mixers, and began a little soap chemistry shop in my house. Several months later my curiosity shifted to making homemade soda. And then while I was working with the Flint Crepe Company, I dove headlong into learning the various ways of serving the best coffee.
First, I got an old stove top homemade espresso maker and began making wonderful espresso for myself and for family when we got together. Then came the pour-over method and I got a Chemex pour-over device. And after that was the vacuum coffeemaker where the heat from a flame creates a vacuum in one section of the maker and sucks up all the water, thereby mixing the water with the coffee grounds, eventually releasing the mixed coffee back into the bottom chamber.
I initially thought some of these methods were new to the recent coffee era we've gone through in the last 20 years. But Pastor Brown said to me one day, "That's not new, that's the way people used to make it in my day." Just so you know, his day was a pretty long time ago. He was born in 1930. Anyway, the thing I loved about all this was that these things were all new to me. But they seemed like things which more people should know about, but they didn't because we've all become so accustomed to the mechanized way everything has been done for the last 50 years or so. And when I began to learn how to do it, I somehow felt invigorated and fulfilled in a strange Ludite sort of way. And that brings me to the shoes.
The same bug that bit my dad to learn about cellos, or beer tomatoes, or bees, and the same bug that bit me to learn about soap, or soda, or coffee, also bit me to learn about shoes.
I never really put much thought into how shoes were made. But about 3 years ago, I began to look into it. I wanted to make a pair or two for myself and began looking at some websites. And what I saw intrigued me quite seriously. Many of the techniques I was seeing go back thousands of years. I loved watching videos of the shoe being lasted, or of the welt being stitched on. There was something so earthy to it. There was a certain connection to the past, and for all the complexity, a certain simplicity to it. I also knew if I ever learned how to do it, it would take several months at the bare minimum. So, now, here I am in Doylestown, PA, about 600 miles from my hometown of Flint, MI. And I'm learning the ancient craft known as shoemaking, which is also called the gentle craft. I've been learning a lot and I still feel like I've only scratched the surface.
I know my pursuit of the gentle craft has something to do with this deep curiosity I have to learn how things are made, especially the way they used to be made in a time gone by, by true artisans. And I know that a large part of that comes from my dad. In fact, when he heard that I was going to be learning from Perry Ercolino, another one of his eccentricities showed up. He went out and had this lab coat made for me. I haven't had a chance to wear it yet, but I soon will, and I think it's pretty cool, in an eccentric sort of way!