Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

Our latest small-business casualty: Sam Torrey Shoe Service, for decades a comforting continuity at Lee Highway at George Mason Dr., dimmed its “open” sign at the end of July.

The news pinged around the Nextdoor listserve, and more than 130 customers mourned the loss of the expert repair skills of Kervork Tchalekian, who since 1986 has rescued countless favorite footwear, luggage, zippers and pocketbooks. (I was a regular for heel plates, needed because I’m slue-footed and wear down new shoes too fast.)

The pandemic’s economic lockdown has hastened the planned retirement to North Carolina’s Outer Banks, which the 56-year-old and his wife, a food industry cheese specialist, had envisioned for a decade later.

On a recent Monday during his multi-day pack-up, I reminisced with “Jo-Jo,” as his Armenian family nicknamed him, as we stood amid stacked National Moving Company boxes, giveaway furniture and silent metallic machinery.

Still displayed on his vintage countertop is the black-and-white photo of Sam Torrey’s back when it shared space in the Cherrydale Fire Department building, after Sam Torregrosa opened doors in 1945. Taped nearby is the familiar fixit-shop adage, attributed to English Victorian wise man John Ruskin: “There is hardly anything in the world that someone cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper, and the people who consider price alone are that person’s lawful prey.”

Jo-Jo insists you can’t get quality without paying for it. But today’s shoe market, with instant internet sales and disposable synthetics, has rendered the Ruskin philosophy quaint.

“The closing was unplanned, but Covid[-19] made the decision easier,” said Jo-Jo, who has run the business solo since March, when he laid off his three craftsmen (plus some part-time customer service helpers). “I got them jobs,” he said. This summer, “things had started to pick up a little, but it was not steady enough to call the guys in.”

Jo-Jo has since been working 18-hour days and, toward the end, turning down work and calling pending customers to accelerate final pickups. The tins of shoe polish, shine kits and shoelaces he stocks remain on the racks, though he has given away or sold a bunch. “I’ve already thrown away thousands of dollars in supplies,” he lamented.

The movers will transfer the “big, awkward” sander, trimmer, shining “all-in-one” machine “needed for any shoe shop,” he said. The two stitching machines, 500 pounds each, “are outdated and not easy to get rid of,” he said. He’ll keep one.

“The community has been great, and there are not enough words to express my gratitude,” Jo-Jo said.

His landlord, Virginia Hospital Center, waived the lease, which wasn’t supposed to terminate until November. “He’s been an institution in this area of Arlington” and will be tough to replace given the parking difficulties, I was told by hospital vice president for community relations Adrian Stanton.

The good news is that Sam Torrey’s services will continue online, for those who want to “keep in touch” with his special capabilities, just as soon as Jo-Jo can set up convenient shipping arrangements. (samtorreyshoeservice@verizon.net)

A few other local shoe services remain. The heir to Sam Torrey mentioned Bedo’s Leatherworks in Falls Church. (I found eight others listed.) “But no one,” says Jo-Jo, “does what I do.”

Wanna recapture memories of Arlington in the 1950s and 60s? I helped produce a new YouTube video assembled from rescued old 8 mm home movies shot by a visiting Belgian family.

It includes rare footage of Bernie’s Pony Ring, Glen Echo Park (technically in Maryland, but an Arlington favorite), the Potomac Boat Races and Gravelly Point plane watching, along with a funeral at Arlington National Cemetery. See it at youtube.com/watch?v=bfge0wuOf-k&t=35s.

Thanks to Arlington Historical Society backers and to technical director David Downey of Transvideo in Falls Church, who continues to utilize all that funky old audio-visual equipment.