By Cindy Hadish
MARION – Rich Foens has soled his last shoe.
Starting as a youth in his father’s shop, Foens is retiring at age 80 after 55- to 70-hour work weeks as owner of Smitty’s Shoe Repair. Yet, he insists it wasn’t really work.
“I started at age 9 and I’ve enjoyed every day,” he said. “I’ve never went to work one day in my life.”
His philosophy is evident as he chats with friends and customers who come through the door.
John Wollner of Cedar Rapids stopped in on one of the final days to see about having his shoes shined.
A longtime customer, Wollner said he will miss conversations with Foens about Hawkeye wrestling and more.
“The guy’s a relic and an institution at the same time,” he said.
Wollner is one of few customers to call Foens by his real name.
“About 98 percent of people call me Smitty,” Foens said, unperturbed by the assumption that his name is the same as the business he purchased from the sons of original owner Frank Smith, who started Smitty’s at its site at 684 10th St. in Marion, about 90 years ago.
Foens, originally from Davenport, took over his father’s shoe repair shop in Tipton at age 25 and came to Marion 35 years ago.
Even as more shoes are made of materials that cannot be repaired, Foens said the past year was one of his busiest, as three other shoe repair shops had closed in Eastern Iowa.
His retirement decision was made when the owners decided to end his lease to make improvements to the building, built in 1895.
Foens holds no ill-will toward his landlords.
He can stay in the building through the end of November, but stopped taking new orders and will focus on cleaning up the machinery he is selling, including to one person who might open a shoe repair shop in Cedar Rapids.
While Smitty’s has become a rarity in a “throwaway” society, Foens added that there will always be a need for a shoe repair shop.
He estimates working on 100 to 150 pairs per week, much of which involves heel repair on women’s shoes and soles on men’s shoes. One customer even continues to send her shoes to Smitty’s after she relocated to Seattle.
Foens changes indoors from Skechers loafers into black Apex orthopedic shoes every day, with his own work shoes never leaving the shop.
The same will be true on his final day. A former high school wrestler and avid Hawkeye wrestling fan, Foens will follow the tradition of wrestlers who mark their last match by leaving their shoes on the mat.
“When I lock up,” Foens said, “these work shoes will stay right here.”