Pioneer Renewer: 25 Years Of Shoe Repair In The Castro

For the past 25 years, Al Stanley has been repairing shoes at his quaint shoe repair shop on 18th Street (at Douglass), and not much about the shop has changed since he first opened.

Stanley, who now lives in Pacifica but is originally from Oakland, got his start in shoe repair in 1975, working as an apprentice for Greg McKeag at FiDi shoe repair shop The Mad Cobbler.

After working for McKeag for five years, Stanley decided it was time to venture out on his own. He opened his first shoe repair store, Stonestown Shoe Repair, on Buckingham Way across the street from Stonestown Mall. Stanley spent 21 years at this location, from 1979 to 1990, before being replaced by a Weight Watchers.

After a short stint in West Portal ("The customers just didn't follow me to West Portal and the parking was too difficult"), Stanley bought the location at 4501 18th St. in 1991. 

Pioneer Renewer etched into the glass. | steven bracco/hoodline

The Castro location had been a shoe repair shop since the 1920s. After purchasing the store and moving in, Stanley decided to change the store's name from The Shoe Horn back to its original name, Pioneer Renewer.

It's tucked away in a quiet commercial corridor of the Castro, but it wasn't always so sleepy: Stanley tells us that the intersection of 18th and Douglass used to be busier than it is today. Across Douglass Street was a pet supply store called My Best Friend, and what is now Apparatus Architecture was a corner market.

Stanley, who's seen many businesses change over time, considers himself very lucky to be where he is today: "I've got a great landlord and plan on being here a long time."

Pioneer Renewer at the corner of 18th & Douglass. | steven bracco/Hoodline

Inside the shop, you'll find Stanley working alongside his assistants, doing everything from resoling to heel repair, polishing and even repairing luggage, zippers and baseball gloves. Shoes are strewn about all over, organized by type on shelves and in brown paper bags. 

Business is steady, according to Stanley. Just like the shoe repair trade itself, Stanley sticks to his old ways and keeps track of shoe repair orders with a handwritten ledger. It was only recently that Stanley started using text messaging to notify customers that their shoes were ready, at his son's insistence. But don't think about paying for your repairs with your smartphone or credit cards: the old-school shop is cash or check only.

Shoes organized by style with tickets attached. | steven bracco/Hoodline

Shoe repair is a service that many people need, but is becoming increasingly hard to find. A 2009 Chronicle article noted an increase in the demand for shoe services, which has benefitted the repair shops that still remain.  Still, shoe repair shops have closed around the city. Mike's of Noe Valley Shoe Repair on 24th Street closed in 2014, Haight Street Shoe Repair closed just last December after owner Carlos Lopez retired, and Sam's Shoe Service at 16th and Mission also closed down in 2015.

Assistants work on repairing shoes. | steven bracco/Hoodline

Finding new employees to help with the increase in demand has become increasingly difficult, as people from younger generations are less likely to be interested in the shoe repair trade. "There's been an increase in shoe repairmen from South and Central America," Stanley noted.  Some vocational schools around the Bay Area, including Laney College in Oakland and John O'Connell in San Francisco, also provide training. In his time owning Pioneer Renewer, Stanley says he has also hired a few former convicts from San Quentin who were trained while incarcerated.

After a quarter century in the Castro, Stanley says, "It's the neighborhood diversity that I like so much." Stanley, who's been a member of the Castro Merchants for years, says his success is due to the Castro residents that have kept him in business all this time. "I receive a lot of community support for my local business from people that live here ... I can't go down the street to get lunch without running into a customer."

"I've been a customer for nearly 10 years," said Castro resident and real estate agent Pat Patricelli, who was inside the store when we stopped by. "Pioneer Renewer is really friendly, I love wearing the same shoes until the heels wear out ... I've always got a pair of shoes in here it seems."

Looking to the future, Stanley doesn't see himself retiring anytime soon, but would like to see his two sons possibly take over the shop at some point. His oldest son Robert, 18, now works at the shop part-time and according to Stanley has taken an interest in the trade and is considering taking over one day.

Pioneer Renewer is open Tuesday, Thursday and Friday from 9am-6pm and Wednesday and Saturday from 9am-5pm. (Closed Sunday and Monday.)

This story is Part 2 in Hoodline's 3-Part Series this week celebrating Small Business Week featuring some of the Castro's well-known, long-standing small businesses. Keep your eyes open for our final Small Business Week story on Saturday.

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