Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Shoe cobbler Steven Olmstead of the Mall of Georgia Shoe Repair has been collecting shoes since the 1970's. Olmstead oldest pair of shoes dates back to the 1850's. "This is not my trade, it's my life" said Olmstead.
BUFORD -- Some people consider shoes just another accessory we wear, akin to shirts, pants, gloves and hats. But to Steven Olmstead, a fifth-generation cobbler at Mall of Georgia Shoe Repair, they are more than that.
"Shoes are a way of life, not a trade," Olmstead said.
Olmstead keeps part of his life in the store -- which is owned by Yuriy Yakubov, a native of Uzbekistan -- as a miniature museum collection. Olmstead keeps 11 pairs of shoes in a glass case, varying in style and color and dating back to at least the 1820s.
The variety in the collection shows the high and low end of footwear from previous eras. One item is a brown doll shoe that he says an infant wore because that's all the family could afford. Another is black and gray with gray spats. Olmstead calls them "Four Dollar Gangster Shoes" because they are the type Al Capone might have worn.
"You very seldom find the two-tones, and none of them new. If you do, I'd like to have them," he said with a chuckle.
Olmstead got his start at Niven's Shoe Repair in Gainesville, which is now Red Shoe House. He started working on shoes at age 5, got on full-time payroll at age 12 and has been doing the job for the past five decades.
"(My grandfather) tore up the stitcher down there and had me to put it back together," Olmstead said. "He said, 'You're on payroll at $40 a week.' I was 12 years old. I've been on payroll ever since, and I'm 60."
Red Shoe House is owned by Eddie Tatum, who Olmstead calls a good friend. It's also where Gov. Nathan Deal gets his shoes repaired. Olmstead has serviced some big names in his time, including Deal, Andrew Young, Herschel Walker, Evel Knievel, Bill Elliott and Matt Kenseth.
Knievel didn't exactly have a normal experience in Olmstead's shop.
"I (ran) Evel Knievel slap out of the shop," Olmstead said. "I had my own shoe shop under the Coca-Cola sign on Peachtree Street at the time. Evel Knievel come to town, it's 1976 because everything was red, white and blue. He wanted me to paint his boots for his audition."
But Knievel didn't want to wait. He wanted to get to the front of the line.
"'I want you to do them this afternoon,'" Knievel told Olmstead. But Olmstead wasn't having it.
"I'm the owner. You won't get your damn shoes today. Get the hell out of my shop," Olmstead recalled with a grin. "He didn't have his shoes fixed that day. Not by me."
Many of the objects in Olmstead's collection, which also includes wooden sandals, salt and pepper shakers, and old shoe polish, have been given to him from customers in appreciation from his work.
The quality of the shoes has changed over time, which is why Olmstead has been able to hold on to shoes from nearly 200 years ago.
"Everything was made of leather back then," he said. "Solid leather. And the majority of them are handmade. They ain't made by machine. Today's market, there's no quality control. Everything's made of what I call garbage."
For work, Olmstead wears a pair of 15-year-old original Rockports that he said a customer left. He fixed them up and has worn them on the job since.
"You can't buy these any more," he said of the shoes' quality.
Some of the pieces in Olmstead's collection came from the Crawford Long Museum in Jefferson. He didn't like them just gathering dust in a back room, and so he decided to show them to the public at his place of employment.
As for the entire collection, Olmstead wants people to appreciate the pieces. His children were killed in a car wreck in 1977, so he has no one to inherit the collection once he's gone. His hope that someone else will come along, buy the pieces -- he said they are for sale -- and give them the light of day instead of relegating them to the back room of a museum again.