Awl, shucks. Walt Grace Shoe Repair, a Placerville icon in business for more than 40 years, is up for sale.
For 41 years Walt Grace has put his heart — and soles — into his work, becoming a fixture on Main Street where customers use his unique drive-through service to drop off leather shoes, boots, purses and vests to receive quality repairs.
It’s not just the sewing and stitching awls that Grace, 64, is planning to put away for the last time. He’ll also say goodbye to his sewing machine, cutters, crimper, finisher, buffer and automatic nailer that populate his small store at 120 Main St.
The cozy interior, smelling comfortably of dark leathers that line the walls and lie on shelves, has been Grace’s environment for 21 years at that location; he ran his business farther east on Main Street, across from Florence’s, for 20 years before moving to the current location.
During his career, Grace has managed to cobble together a good life for himself and his family, along with wife Lori. The couple, set to celebrate their 25th anniversary in November, has raised four children, all grown and on their own.
“I grew up in Sacramento, and had a shop in Folsom for about a year-and-a-half before moving to El Dorado County. I just wanted a better life for my kids,” said Grace as he paused between customers on a recent late-summer day. The business sees between 40 and 70 customers daily, Tuesday through Saturday.
Despite the early mornings he has known for four decades, opening the business at 7:30 a.m. most days, Grace said he has enjoyed his career and will particularly miss one aspect the most.
“The customers, of course,” he said, just as a loud clank let him know yet another car had driven up to the window, a woman inquiring about a work order.
It will be hard for Grace to relinquish the tools of his trade but he is willing to train anyone seriously interested in purchasing the business and taking over.
“It would have been nice just to sell and walk away but that’s not how things worked out,” Grace said. “I’ve never taught anyone but I think in a couple of months I could give them the basics, and then it would just be practice, practice, practice … to make perfect.”
One thing that Grace can’t teach, however, is his work ethic and commitment to community, qualities that have led to his success and to which anyone would wish to aspire.
Just ask Placerville’s favorite cowboy, Davey “Doc” Wiser.
“Walt and I go way back, to the early days when he was down on Main Street across from Florence’s,” recalled Wiser, 71, of Camino. “He was the guy … the one I went to right after I got here in ’77.”
Wiser is widely known for offering free stagecoach rides to the public during the Christmas holidays and other special occasions in downtown Placerville. He’s also known for his fancy footwear, cowboy boots that the public loves to hear clomping down the street. But it’s not just about the boots, Wiser pointed out.
“I remember one time I was doing my stagecoach deal and it was just before closing time for Walt, when a bridle broke on one of the horses. Walt was about to close but he went back into the shop and fixed me right up.”
Now that Walt Grace Shoe Repair has a “for sale” sign draped over the storefront, Wiser said he will have to inventory his stash of cowboy boots.
“I’ve got seven or eight pairs, and Walt always would double-sole and double-heel my boots,” Wiser said. “I gotta go through all my boots and get them in right away.”
Another local customer, Sue Hegarty of Placerville, said she will gather up her purses and take those that need mending into the shop.
“I’m really sad that he’s planning to close,” said Hegarty, 77. “It’s been a real benefit to our town to have a business such as his. Besides my purses, I’ve taken lots of shoes there and he repairs my dog’s leashes.”
Grace’s skills were learned at the knee of his father, Walt Sr., and his talents have served thousands over the years. Customers include police officers and firefighters, with many customers from the California Department of Forestry.
Grace said he has had a couple of nibbles from potential buyers of the business but nothing has been firmed up.
“It would be nice to see a young person who has an interest,” he speculated. “College isn’t for everyone, and this is a great alternative.”
Grace said anyone interested in talking further about the business prospect may call him at 530-622-0566.
Grace said once he fully retires, he will enjoy spending more time with family, along with golfing, fishing and traveling.
And while it will be difficult for him to set aside that last awl on a dark, wooden shelf inside the tiny shop, still he would be gratified to look back on a career that is, finally, all sewn up.