Five generations pamper Island feet

Tabit family cobblers combine fit and fashion at Chick’s Shoes

  • Monday, November 24, 2008 9:02pm
  • Life
Chad Coleman/Mercer Island Reporter Above

Chad Coleman/Mercer Island Reporter Above

Tabit family cobblers combine fit and fashion at Chick’s Shoes

Nancy Gould-Hilliard
Special to the Reporter

The shop’s smells and sounds have stayed the same over the six decades that I have done business with the Tabit family cobblers. I remember the licorice-like smell of boot black and the whir of the stitchers and sanders in Charles Joseph “Chick” Tabit Sr.’s shoe repair store at the foot of Queen Anne Hill, where my 1950s high school saddle shoes were re-heeled.

The same sensations filled Chick Jr.’s shoe repair on Mercer Island from the 1960s-90s, when Chick Jr., his wife Julie and his children, Chris, Juliena and Danny fixed my purse straps and my growing family’s shoes.

So, when I visited the shop in Tabit Village Square recently to be properly fitted for walking shoes by Chris Tabit, Chick Jr.’s son, I was thrilled to chat with 26-year-old “C.J.” Tabit — the fifth-generation Tabit to become a cobbler. He stepped out from the back shop, wearing an apron generously smudged with plastics and plaster, and introduced himself as the resident “pedorthist,” casting and shaping custom orthotics into shoes for people with troublesome feet.

“These guys saved me,” said a Laurelhurst customer, in the store to pick up her custom shoes. With neuropathy and complications from diabetes, it hurt her to walk until she tried on a pair of “925s” that allowed her foot to rock painlessly. “The orthotic inserts gave me hope to walk again without pain,” she said.

Doctors from the region direct patients to Chick’s for such “managed foot care,” said Chris, who makes appointments to fit folks. Sometimes, people with bad knees or backs learn that with proper shoes, their issues lessen. He takes time to listen, examines their current shoes and provides tips along with shoes that fit just right.

Exactly 30 years ago, I interviewed Chick Jr. and his father, Chick Sr., whose rough, “broad, often-broken dukes swallowed mine in a firm, warm handshake.” The elder had been a prize fighter before he settled into his life’s work as shoe repairman.

His father before him — Papa Joe — had also been a cobbler in the “old country” of Lebanon, when the trade was an art. This patriarch began American cobbling with a shop at Belltown in 1910.

Chick Sr. then operated the Uptown-area shop for 40 years; Chick Jr. opened the Mercer Island store in 1949 on land purchased as a summer home. Tabit Village Square has evolved over the years and is now co-owned by partners, including Milt Clampitt of Clampitt’s Cleaners, next door to Chick’s.

They say the Tabit ground rule is that subsequent generations are never pressured into joining the family business. Yet, at least one of them from each generation has become a cobbler, each adding another dimension to the business.

Besides the new orthotics sideline and the repair of old leather goods, Chick’s Shoes and Repairs doubled its space last December to simulate a fishing lodge filled with 2,000 pairs of new shoes that promise comfort. This was the vision of Chris Tabit, whose passions are to provide people with happy feet and catch a few fish along the way. His father, Chick Jr., had started the sales end of the shop decades earlier with first-rate hiking boots.

Some Tabit tricks of the trade: if you tie your shoes in a square knot parallel to the eyelets, they won’t come untied. Wool-blend socks are less hot, as they wick the moisture and keep an even temperature. To pick up speed on power walks, shorter steps instead of dramatic strides will save your body. If something pinches, wobbles or lists, Chick’s can fashion arch supports, heel lifts, ankle dodges or other inserts. In some cases, they have even rebuilt whole shoes.

There is more to learn from these guys besides shoes. The Tabits share strong family ties and Christian values, are avid fishermen and all refer fondly to their helpmates. In the words of Chick Sr., 30 years ago:

“The secret to happiness in life is to share it with those you hold dear. It’s a natural feeling for someone — that you’ll do anything in the world for them. It’s something you can’t manufacture.”

So will C.J. one day want his children to continue making a living and a life in the same manner?

“I’ll sure want my ‘someday kids’ to play in the shop and enjoy learning stuff from all of us,” he said. “Chick still comes into the store and shows me how to do things a couple of times a month.”

He doesn’t say so, but I’m told that C.J. also gets a kick out of showing his grandpa some of his “higher-tech” moves.

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