The first time I dropped into Skinny’s Shoe Repair Shop at 5102-46th Avenue in Ponoka a few years back I felt instantly welcome.
The keen smell of leather was present and I just couldn’t help admiring the two really nice motorcycles sitting in the corner as we casually chatted over coffee and donuts about the congenial shoemaker’s life story and favourite subjects of boots and bikes and all the rest.
V.J. (Skinny) La Bine was living in Prince Albert, Sask. in 1988 and working at the rugged task of pouring concrete floors, but when his back gave out, he had to go looking for another ‘gentler’ career. With an open mind and lots of enthusiasm Skinny contacted a denturist, a watchmaker and a shoemaker as his initial choices of possible employment. After finding out that you had to go to school in Winnipeg for two years to become a denturist and that watches were now digital so you needed to become a jeweller, he chatted with the local shoemaker who hired him immediately and his now close to 30 year profession was off and running with many stops in Saskatchewan, B.C. and finally Alberta.
After six months at the Prince Albert shop, the family moved to Cranbook, B.C. where there were two shoemakers, but after neither could hire the feisty new apprentice, Skinny decided to look into two shoe repair courses that were offered in Vancouver and at a Regina college, choosing the latter.
Luckily Harry Flander, his shoe master at Regina, decided to purchase the books and the equipment from the college and set it up in Esterhazy, Sask., where La Bine relocated and completed the nine month course. After moving some of his new equipment and belongings to Cranbrook, he eagerly went in search of a location to practise his new-found skills, stopped to looked at a shop in Nelson, B.C., but after meeting veteran shoemaker Vince Devito, whose family had been in the business there for 40 years, he decided to look for new opportunities in the East Kootenays.
His travels included a stop to work with Vic Penner in his Invermere, B.C. shoe store and then off to Calgary for employment at Money’s Worth and Best Shops in the malls for 11 months. The strong desire to open his own shoe repair shop took the determined La Bine up and down Highway 2 from Lethbridge to Leduc and everywhere in between, including a 1993 stop in Ponoka, where he really liked the community atmosphere, but they already had two shoe shops.
After setting up a shop for six years in Invermere, he longed to dig in his heels in a community where he could purchase a home, so he returned to Alberta, eventually getting in touch with Myra Raugust at the Town of Ponoka. When she urged him to open his business here, he would buy a house with the help of Bob Tiltgen and then opened his present shop in the accompanying garage on Sept. 20, 1999.
It had been a long-standing dream that finally came true for Skinny as he and his daughter Jeanette, who had been with him since the age of five could move into their new Ponoka home, and with daughter Tara joining them in 2005 it was never boring being a single dad of two teenage girls as well as operating his very own business in this friendly town that he really fell in love with over the past 18 great years and is still going strong. After a busy day at the shop, he loves relaxing at home or when the weather permits he can head out on the open road with his bike and his buddies. Skinny is an avid longstanding member of The Central Alberta Vintage Motorcycle Group, helping to host and organize their annual summer Rally at the Ponoka Stampede grounds and enjoys attending the swap meets.
As he fondly reminisces about his ‘go-go lifestyle’ over the past 30 years, Skinny has so many fond memories to share with customers, friends and neighbours. Along the way, he has probably repaired and pampered thousands of pairs of boots and shoes, as well skillfully sewing, grinding, fashioning, fixing and creating such unique items as antique doll shoes, horse boots, mower bags, back packs, belts, pow-wow regalia, fancy leather collars for the ladies, some special exterior orthopaedic modifications for clients with foot problems, and on and on, so don’t ever be afraid to ask if he can help you.
He has also had the great opportunity of working with members of the rodeo and equestrian professions, repairing high quality and very expensive boots and accessories. Skinny will surely chuckle when I explain that he has likely saved lots of soles and refurbished many worn out old heels during his long and colourful career, but he usually smiles and takes on most of the requests he receives. His only pet peeves are being referred to as the ‘Village Cobbler’, as well as having ‘mucky’ boots or shoes being dropped off at his shop to be worked on, then smiled and hinted that he charges an extra $500 bucks a boot for cleaning them up.
In order to keep up with the many requests that come across his counter, Skinny has become a big fan and follower of ‘Shoe Repair International’, a Facebook group which allows him to browse the internet to get tips and advice and share with other shoemakers on new and better ways to finish the job and keep the customers happy.
To add to his precision equipment and skills he recently purchased a ‘finisher’ at an auction in Prince Albert from the same Shoemaker that he got his first job with three decades ago. While always relishing all the fun and successes that he has achieved through his chosen profession Skinny sadly expressed the fact that shoemakers are slowly becoming a fading breed of master craftsman.
“When I started my business in Ponoka in 1999 there were nine shops within an hour’s drive, but now there are only three…but I love what I do, because it’s like arts and crafts all day, and the customers are great to deal with.”
By the way, Skinny is also looking for an eager intern to learn the trade, so if you are interested please drop in and see him.