Couple — he’s 82, she’s 75 — brave virus to save Atlanta shoe repair shop

Business in trouble after more than half century in shopping center
Joe Jordan, 82, owner of Cato Shoe Repair, answers a phone call from a customer inside his store in Atlanta. He and his wife, Hattie, have been repairing shoes since the 1960s. In addition to shoes, they work on belts, purses, luggage and more. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

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Joe Jordan, 82, owner of Cato Shoe Repair, answers a phone call from a customer inside his store in Atlanta. He and his wife, Hattie, have been repairing shoes since the 1960s. In addition to shoes, they work on belts, purses, luggage and more. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Joe and Hattie Jordan feared COVID-19.

But the husband and wife had an even greater worry: That they would lose the shoe repair business they have operated in the same Atlanta shopping center for nearly 54 years.

So 82-year-old Joe and 75-year-old Hattie put an “Open” sign on their front door this week, hoping customers would return and help them dig out of $10,000 in back rent that the pandemic helped pile on Cato Shoe Repair.

They set a hand sanitizer squirt bottle on the counter of the shop, along with a container of cleaning wipes. And they waited.

And waited.

Joe Jordan, 82, owner of Cato Shoe Repair, talks about how he and his wife have navigated their small business during the COVID-19 pandemic at the store in Atlanta. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Joe put on a dust mask. By the second day, its elastic straps were stretched. His arthritis-pained hands fumbled with the covering each time it slipped down his face.

The couple, married for more than half a century, was mostly alone in the shop. She, in a crowded back room watching soap operas on a small TV; he, just a few feet away, cleaning up dust, straightening up what had accumulated over the decades and replacing the lining in a customer’s treasured pair of boots.

No matter what, shoes always wear down. You won’t get rich doing it, but Joe had convinced himself there would always be a job for a shoe repairman, “just like an undertaker.”

Shoes are used as decoration in the front window entrance at Cato Shoe Repair, which has been in the same Atlanta shopping center for more than half a century. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Each day this week, Joe and Hattie drove an hour and a half from their Clayton County home to the shop in affluent Buckhead’s Powers Ferry Square shopping center at the corner of Powers Ferry and Roswell roads.

By the third day, Joe went to a drug store and got paper to make a second sign. “We’re open,” it said. He posted it in the front window.

Dozens of pairs of repaired shoes, each wrapped in clear plastic, sat waiting for their owners to return. Most were dropped off before the pandemic.

“It’s a mess,” Hattie Jordan said. “We might have to close the door. Period.”

Until the virus this year, she said, “we never had a problem paying the rent.”

Hattie Jordan, wife of Joe Jordan, cuts loose string from a boot that her husband will repair at their shop, Cato Shoe Repair, in Atlanta. She says she was roped into working with her husband in the beginning and has been in the shop with him since the 1960s. Hattie says she’s ready to stop working while Joe says he loves the challenge of fixing items. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

They rely on money from the shop to supplement their Social Security and help pay bills.

He trained to do shoe repair in the Army. Boots came by the truckload. He saw other shoe guys accidentally cut themselves while working on shoes with sharp tools. Dangerous and boring sounded like a bad combination for a career.

But when he went to the unemployment office after leaving the service in the early 1960s, a staffer pushed him toward a job at a small chain of Atlanta shoe repair shops. That’s where he learned to appreciate the many forms of footwear and the challenges of giving them new life. “I kind of fell in love with it,” he said.

Three years later, the chain’s owner, whose last name was Cato, offered to sell him a new store, starting with $1 down and then payments over time. Jordan launched it in 1966. His rent: $25 a month.

By then, he and Hattie were already married. He had met her while she was visiting a neighbor’s house. He had stopped by to ask for a green pepper out of the garden. The romance bloomed.

“He just found a hot piece of pepper,” she said.

Like her husband, she unexpectedly found she enjoyed some of the work in the shop, where she dyed and cleaned handbags and luggage.

She had grown up poor in LaGrange. “I said, ‘Lord, let me marry a man who don’t drink, and let me have a lot of shoes.’”

She gestured to the shop. “I have more shoes than I can ever wear.”

If the pandemic doesn’t get in the way, her husband said, he’d like to be working when he’s 85.

She shook her head, no.

She’s worn down by the pressure. The long hours. Dirt that can’t be cleaned from under fingernails. “Kids don’t want to be in it. I don’t blame them. I just got stuck in it.”

Their only child, a daughter, tried other careers but not shoe repair. Joe attempted to convince their grandson to learn the craft. The young man showed no enthusiasm for it. They dropped the idea.

Joe Jordan, 82, owner of Cato Shoe Repair, shows off a shoe he will repair at his store in Atlanta. The owner of the shoes told Jordan that a dog chewed the back of one. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

But there remained so much to fix. Customers would bring items other shops condemned as unsalvageable. Joe accepted the challenges.

Shoes chewed by dogs. Luggage and family trunks missing parts. Worn-out baseball mitts. Leather covers for Bibles. Wedding shoes for Hattie to dye or footwear to set right for celebrities.

Over time, they noticed grown kids of early customers coming in. Eventually, the grown grandchildren followed. Styles changed. It became harder for Hattie to match the exploding array of colors. Now, the couple lament more people wearing flip flops and what Hattie calls “gym shoes.”

People wear down just like soles and heels do. When he was young, Joe could take apart a pair of men’s dress shoes and rebuild them in a half hour. Now, it takes him twice as long. Dexterity fades with age. It’s affected the quality of his work, Joe said.

After more than 50 years, though, with the shop faltering, he’s not ready to close down. Not this way.

When they learned about the growing threat of COVID-19, Joe and Hattie closed the shop and holed up at home. They grew bored. Eventually, they ventured back to the shop, keeping their door locked. Most stores nearby remained shuttered. Occasionally, customers would stop by to pick up repaired shoes.

All the while, the Jordans were falling further behind on rent. Expenses quickly exceeded meager savings.

On Monday, they reopened the shop.

Joe and Hattie waited all day. No customers came.

Halfway through the second day, a man on his way to a golf outing stopped in to retrieve shoes. A counter separated the customer and the shoe repair guy. Perhaps only two feet was between them as each leaned in to do business much the way it used to be done before the pandemic.

“I’ll be back here for more shoe repairs,” the customer, Mike Marshall, told Joe.

He’d been patronizing the shop for maybe 20 years. “I love the guy,” Marshall said. “He’s just friendly and nice.”

Joe Jordan (center) and Hattie Jordan (right), owners of Cato Shoe Repair, complete a transaction for customer Mike Marshall (left) as he picks up a pair of shoes at the store in Atlanta. Marshall says he’s been a customer at Cato Shoe Repair for 20 years. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

No other customers came that day. Just one other came by on the third day. A few more trickled in later in the week.

Said Hattie at one point, “Walk by faith and not by sight.”

The couple applied for federal pandemic-related financial help. They haven't heard back.

He called a representative of his landlord, Regency Centers, a publicly traded company with more than 400 shopping centers around the nation. He learned he would need to fill out forms to be considered for any potential rent break.

Then he would need to do something he’s grown accustomed to amid the pandemic: Wait.

Joe Jordan, 82, owner of Cato Shoe Repair, shows off a leather cover that he fitted for a customer’s Bible at his store in Atlanta. In addition to shoes, Joe and his wife, Hattie, work on belts, purses, luggage and more. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

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