Ask Nicolas Torres about his 30 years working on Calle Mision, and he says, simply, “La Mision es mi estado, es mi unico estado, (The Mission is my state, my only state).”
His shop, Alexander’s Shoe Repair at 3189 Mission St., is named for his son, born at San Francisco General Hospital in 1990.
He eats his lunch in the Mission every day at the Jasmine Tea House, just up the block from his shop.
Called simply Zapatero (shoemaker) by his customers, Torres, who turns 76 soon, has been fixing shoes for more than 60 years. He started in his native Honduran city, San Pedro Sula. “I grew up in a shoe repair shop, very poor, and by the time I was 18 or so, I already had learned the trade. I always wanted to be independent, to work for myself, and not have to depend on others.”
He started visiting relatives in the United States in 1974, but could not stay, so he went to live in Mexico City for a year, planning and arranging his return. Why did he leave Honduras? “Poverty, all around you, poverty, no opportunity to flourish and grow. Here, I will never be rich, I have not gotten rich, but I make enough to survive. I have never had to borrow money from banks; I have enough to enjoy my old age, the time I have left.”
His wife, Delcia, whom he met on a trip back to Honduras in 1982, laughs when asked if he will retire. “I don’t even bring it up anymore. He has a very strong character, he is a perfectionist, but he has a very tender heart.”
He also has a strong back and not one jot of arthritis in his hands. At the front of his small shop, an old boombox with big speakers blasts music: sometimes rancheros, sometimes country. Telling Torres what you want done to your boots requires a loud voice, and patience, as the Zapatero will not be rushed.
He recalls how he came to be a business owner, and no longer an employee at the Montgomery Shoe Repair shop downtown:
“In 1990, Alex was born and the landlord of my first space (at 29th and Mission streets), may God keep him in his glory and his memory, made it possible for me. Gave me a break. So I started buying machines, one by one. God gave me the strength and until today I am here, working. I love my work. Sometimes I think I love my work more than my wife, “ he chuckles, “no, no, that’s a joke!”
A master cobbler, Torres runs his business in much the same way as when he started out: cash only, paper tickets, no electronics, no tracking or Apple pay or online reminders, no helpers, no, ahem, organization to speak of. Sometimes customers have to go behind the counter and help him locate their items, but it’s a small price to pay for the craftsmanship.
“Although service is slow, it is very thorough. Nicolas follows the old-school way of running a business. Still writing on paper, still one man working, still cash-only, but the upside to this is that it’s very homey and you can ask him to do the impossible,” reads one Yelp review.
Torres doesn’t read his reviews, so he doesn’t see the whining, snippy ones that complain about his irregular hours, about the chaotic jumble of shoes and boots, heels and shoelaces and strips of leather, of wallets, leather bags, belts, luggage, all perched precariously on shelves, in teetering piles.
He shrugs. “Sure, sometimes there are malcontents, but the great majority of my customers appreciate me and thank me for my care and attention. I am tranquil in my life; I don’t worry about what I can’t control.”
And he pauses to reflect on the last, really difficult year,
“The pandemic affected my business tremendously. At least we survived. Thank God the landlord gave me help. I am still here ’cause the landlord was not demanding. He said to me, ‘Don’t worry, when you are working again, let’s see when you can pay me.’ If my landlord had not forgiven my rent for March, April, May, and June of last year, I would have had to close the business.”
He’s faced other challenges as well. People no longer wear nice shoes as they are all working from their homes. Still, he manages. “I do zippers, wallets; I can repair anything of leather, and I’m blessed I have clients from 30 years ago, from when I began.”
He also works on shoes for disabled people. “I LOVE that aspect,” he said. I have clients who have post-polio syndrome, and they need their shoes built up, and others who were in car accidents and need their shoes modified, that gives me a lot of satisfaction.”
Besides their son Alex, Delcia and Nicolas have two sons and two daughters from earlier marriages and eight grandchildren.
He regrets having had no time to teach Alex the business. “I was too busy to teach him the trade when he was small,” he said. “You have to start when you are small, and now I have no one to replace me.”
His son chose another field, but Torres is satisfied; his son, he said, is happy.
Torres has considered returning to Honduras, but the situation there is even worse than when he left. Costa Rica might have been another option, he said, “but I’m fine here now.”
His face lights up when asked what he does for pure relaxation. “I love music. You know, I don’t go to bars any more, but I love dancing. I am a pretty good merenguero. (Merengue dancer); We went to Caesar’s Palace maybe two or three times, before the virus, and I dance at parties.”
He pauses reflectively.
“But I don’t need to go to parties to be happy. My work is my hobby and my passion. Time passes so fast when I am working. And seeing my customers leave, smiling, that is the best feeling, still even to now!”
During a rare moment of rest, he steps outside his door onto the sunny sidewalk and pulls out a chair to sit in the sun,
“Soon I will have my 50 years in America, always in San Francisco Bay Area since I came to the USA. I have lived here more than my native land!”