`Cobble, cobble, toil and trouble’ Shoes and shoemaking in Guyana. By Dennis Nichols
Guyana Chronicle
January 13, 2002

IN SHAKESPEARE’S Julius Caesar, an idle workman is upbraided by a Roman official for threatening to “cobble” him.

Maybe with good reason.

For, as the dictionary tells us, to cobble means to make, or mend, in a clumsy, slip-shod manner. But a cobbler was also a shoemaker or shoe-repairer, so the workman’s threat may have been nothing worse than to get the officer a pair of ill-fitting sandals.

If he was in modern-day Guyana though, those sandals may well have been any of the locally-made ‘strappers’ from any of the several good cobblers still making and repairing shoes here.

The art of shoemaking or shoe-building is one of the world’s oldest trades, and one which is deceptively difficult to perfect. Local leather men Michael Carrington, Roy Cummings and veteran Milton Bobb, with nearly 100 years of combined experience among them, shared with me some of the insights - the hard work, the frustration, and the pride - into the profession. Unfortunately, I am unable to speak with the legendary shoe-man, Gerald Foreman of Foreman’s in Tiger Bay, Georgetown, or the other cobblers and shoemakers in the municipal markets and elsewhere.

One of the first things I learnt was that the making of good-quality footwear takes more skill and patience than I imagined. The next was that the unavailability of modern machinery, the difficulty in getting properly-tanned leather and competition from cheap, imported shoes, have forced the leather-craft industry in Guyana to operate at far below maximum potential.

Carrington, who operates out of Foreman’s at Queen and Bentick Streets, says the failure of the tannery in New Amsterdam in the eighties, was a major blow to shoe-makers and those interested in the manufacture, on a large-scale, of shoes and leather products. This view was supported by Cummings, proprietor/owner of Craft Plus on Middle Street, also in the City. He declares that the establishment of the tannery was “a great idea” However, he adds, due to mismanagement, a lack of vision, and a fear of making firm decisions by its managers, the tannery was forced to close to down, subsequent to which it was completely vandalised, and its expensive machinery rendered all but useless.

Septuagenarian Milton Bobb says he never needed expensive equipment to ply his trade. And his custom-made shoes were worn by several prominent Guyanese over the years, as were many other leather products he hand-crafted. The late President Burnham, he articulates, proudly wore one of his belts when he went to the United States for a meeting with then President, Lyndon Johnson, in the sixties. He also recalls, with some pride, making boxing boots for boxers, Caesar Barrow and Lennox Beckles, and riding saddles for Trinidadian and Caribbean ace jockey, Challenor Jones.

Bobb, who, incidentally, mentored Cummings, says he made his first pair of shoes (for himself) while still a schoolboy, in 1943, and laughingly remembers these being of canvas which he bought at 36 cents a yard. He adds that business slowed down in the fifties due to the importation and sale of fashionable oriental booties at 60 cents a pair.

The lively veteran, according to other shoemakers, was regarded as the best in his day. Both Cummings and Carrington concurred, as did Bobb’s long-time friend, Alfred Collins, who recalls that Bobb’s popularity may have been partly due to the fact that he made his own designs, shunning the practice of copying from catalogues. And this was so, he adds, despite the good work done by other skilled cobblers such as Foreman, Eddie Knights, George Knights and bandleader, Tom Charles. But while this came naturally to Bobb, the process of building a shoe is quite a complex one, as Carrington and Cummings explained.

The making of a pair of shoes encompasses some 15 stages, although a few of them overlap. From sizing (determining its size by measuring the length of a foot and the height of the instep) to packaging and marketing, this process is one in which attention has to be paid to every detail. It includes designing, drawing, cutting, skiving (paring the edges of the uppers), shaping the inner sole, cutting the outer sole, stitching, heeling (cutting and wedging the heel), trimming, sanding, staining, burnishing, accommodating the seating (a piece of soft leather of synthetic material over the inner sole), and finally shining or buffing the finished product.

But though such well-made shoes are of good quality, Carrington bemoans the situation in Guyana where sophisticated tools and materials are so hard to come by, that the shoe industry has been reduced to the operations of individuals and small groups with little commercial or export value. Compounding this situation is the fact that, even relative to the depreciated value of the Guyana dollar, imported shoes are surprisingly cheap: in some cases, ridiculously so, Why?

The answer to this question may lie somewhere in the convoluted transactions involving importers, mass-production manufacturers, the payment (or non-payment) of duties and simple consumerism. A brief look at shoes sold at two popular stores, Bhena’s and the Discount Store, revealed prices ranging from $500 for a pair of ‘Clouds’ to $20,000 for a pair of ‘Timberlands’. And although prices may reach close to $40,000 elsewhere, there is a whole range of shoes selling from between $1,000 and $3,000 a pair - quite cheap; moreso when compared with the prices of shoes in the Caribbean and North America.

So, ironically, although the cost-of-living is frustratingly high here, many Guyanese choose to buy imported footwear to the detriment of local craftsmen. However, some are still thankful for the continued support and patronage of small groups of clients who, it seems, appreciate the local shoemakers’ skill and the services.

Equally ironic is the view held by some local manufacturers that Guyanese have the expertise and the capacity to significantly impact on the Caribbean market for shoes and leather products. Carrington was part of a group of leather-crafters who attempted to revive the abandoned tannery in New Amsterdam. But the group was forced to quit after trying unsuccessfully to obtain lease of the property. He feels the government should intercede and help to resuscitate the tannery and the leather industry which, he adds, can be done by conducting training programmes for young people interested in such work, and utilising the skills of the few veterans left, like Foreman and Bobb.

Leather men would welcome such a move. They still have their knives, lasts (dummy, wooden feet) cow tails (used for bending nails and tacks) and their experience. We have sufficient cow hides and we know how to treat and preserve them. And there are hundreds of young, unskilled men (and women) who, with some motivation, may be quite willing to acquire shoe-making and leather-crafting skills.

Who knows…? With a new tannery, new machinery and an injection of government funds, Guyana may well find itself the shoemaking and leather-craft capital of the Caribbean.