It appeared to be a normal business day at the little shoe repair shop on South Park Street.
Old friends sat in the front of the store or dropped by to talk, joke and trade stories of growing up in Madison decades ago with the shop’s proprietor, George Fabian, while a few customers dropped by hoping to have their shoes repaired Wednesday.
Only this day, Fabian, 86, the longtime owner of the business at 609 S. Park St., turned customers away. He recommended other repair shops, but his is now closed for good.
“I’m sorry, I’m closed, ma’am. I’ve retired,” he told one customer.
Eighty years after his father started the business, Fabian decided to hang up his cobbler’s tools after suffering a broken leg in October — and broken water pipes at the shop during the last cold stretch this winter.
The shop had been an institution in Madison and the old Greenbush neighborhood. Its closing not only means customers will have to find a new place to have their shoes repaired. It also means the collection of longtime friends and neighborhood residents that met in the shop — or outside on a bench along Park Street in warmer months — have to find a new meeting spot to swap stories.
Although it was a business, the shop is also known as a social center where people gathered to talk smart, discuss current events, bemoan the politics of the day and reminisce about growing up in the ’Bush. The neighborhood — which was made up mostly of Italian immigrants, African-Americans and Jews — was largely razed in the 1960s as part of an urban renewal project.
“Once the neighborhood was gone, that was where everyone congregated,” said Tony Bruno, a childhood friend, customer and frequent visitor of the shop. “It was a place to go and see some of the old guys and talk about the old neighborhood and listen to George harass everybody and see some of the goofy stuff that went on.”
Fabian said he had been considering retirement for a while. So far, he doesn’t regret the decision.
“I thought it would be difficult, but at this point in time I don’t have any remorse,” he said. “It was time.”
At the shop on Wednesday afternoon, several pairs of forgotten shoes from as far back as 2015 sat on shelves.
Fabian’s workbench was littered with scraps of repair material and tools.
Most of his hand tools had been removed by his son; other shoe repairmen in Madison had taken some of his equipment, some of which was likely more than 100 years old.
But old sewing machines and a giant machine for buffing, cleaning and polishing shoes remained, while pictures of former University of Wisconsin Badgers hockey players in the “Park Street Shoe Repair Hall of Fame” still hung on the walls.
For longtime friend, Madison resident and shop regular Lowell Bakken, Fabian’s decision means there’s one less place for him to drop by and talk about what’s going on or to borrow a tool.
Bakken had stopped by the shop on Wednesday to grab Fabian’s grease gun to use on his lawnmower.
“This is where I get all my information,” Bakken, a retired teacher, said. “I’ll miss coming in here and being able to spend some time and just getting my wisdom from him. Now I don’t know where I can go for that.”
While the group will probably still see each other at Badgers games, lunches, the golf course or other events, those encounters won’t replace meeting at the shop, Bruno, 80, said.
“We don’t really have a spot,” he said. “There really aren’t any old neighborhood places left ... where you can drop in.”
Decades of business
Fabian started fixing shoes when he was 10 years old.
His dad, an Italian immigrant from Sicily, started the business in 1938 in a small tin shack on Park Street near the shop’s current location.
The business moved to its current location in 1966.
After serving in the Army during the Korean War, Fabian returned to Madison and worked as a surgical orderly at a hospital, where he met his late wife, Inez.
The couple raised three children. Fabian returned to the shoe repair business, eventually taking it over in the early 1960s.
Since then, he’s fixed shoes belonging to a member of the rock band Kiss and former Gov. Tommy Thompson, repaired thousands of pieces of hockey equipment and even mended a brassiere for the udder of a dairy cow.
Fabian, an avid sports fan, also worked the penalty box at Badgers hockey games for years.
Although Fabian said not as many people get their shoes fixed today, he was able to put all three of his children through college with the money he made repairing footwear.
“I’m very proud that I put three kids through college in this shack,” he said.
Some of the most common repairs he made throughout the years were to women’s shoes and to heels. He said he especially enjoyed working on Allen Edmonds men’s shoes.
“I got satisfaction from taking a pair of shoes and repairing them,” he said. “And then I realized there aren’t that many shoemakers in the world. ... That made me feel good, and then I hit the cash register and that made me feel even better.”
Soon, the shop — one of the last vestiges of the old Greenbush neighborhood — will be mostly empty and likely torn down.
Fabian sold the building to a Madison dental group that owns a clinic next door almost 20 years ago.
The building will likely be demolished sometime after Fabian clears out the shop, said Kevin Klagos, chief financial officer of First Choice Dental, the company that owns the building.
Klagos said the dental company hopes to honor Fabian’s business somehow, perhaps with a small statue or plaque.
“It would be nice if there would be something nice there to remember all the nice activity that happened,” he said.
Fabian’s impact will also be remembered by a scholarship that will be named in honor of him and his wife.
A fundraiser will be held at the Italian Workmen’s Club for the scholarship on Sunday.
Fabian said he hopes to spend time fishing, playing golf and continuing to see his old friends and neighborhood residents. It’ll just have to be someplace else.
“The customers, they’ll find another place,” Fabian said. “I’ll miss putting the bench out here and waving at the people.”