He was a little, 10-year-old boy shining shoes inside the Campeti’s shoe shop on 11th Street in downtown Wheeling in the late 1960; 47 years and two locations later Joe Campeti is the lone cobbler in the city of Wheeling.
His father did it, and his father’s father did it. In fact, it was his grandfather who departed his native Italy to bring the family’s trade to America in the early 1890s. The Campeti General Shoe Hospital now is located at 1219 Market St. across the roadway from the McLure Hotel in downtown Wheeling.
“My dad was born in the early ’20s, and he took over the business after World War II,” he explained. “At that time the shop was located on 11th Street across from Sears. There was a Louis’ Hot Dog on 11th Street then, and we were just a couple of doors down from them.
“Then my dad moved the shop to the alley between Stone’s and Kaufman’s in 1968,” Campeti continued. “He moved there because at that time there weren’t a lot of options in the downtown. You couldn’t be as choosy as you can be these days, and you could barely walk around on Saturdays because there were so many people who came to this area.”
Following in his father’s footsteps, though, was not pre-determined. There once was a time, Campeti admitted, when he dreamed of becoming a veterinary surgeon.
“I’ve always been good with my hands, and I had a biology teacher who thought I should go into medicine. I’ve always loved animals, so I was really thinking of going in that direction,” he said. “But when I was in high school at Wheeling High, my dad became ill. That’s when I would go to school and then head straight to the shop as soon as I could to help. Instead of college, I went to the ‘School of Hard Knocks.’
“After that, the business was mine, and I did OK because a lot of the other shops around town were closing,” he recalled. “At one time there were 26 shoe repair shops in Wheeling alone, but there were also a lot more shoe stores in downtown Wheeling and around the Valley. That’s not the case today, and now this is the one and only shoe repair shop in the city. I’m the last one standing.”
Campeti moved the shoe hospital to the Market Street location in 2005, and not only does he repair shoes, but he also sells orthopedic and diabetic shoes as well as Red Wing products. He fixes between 50-100 pairs of shoes per week, and just as many men, he reported, have their shoes repaired as the ladies do.
“There are a lot of guys who refuse to buy the synthetic-leather shoes because they do not last even close to how long the real-leather ones do,” Campeti explained. “As far as the ladies are concerned, most of those jobs involve the high heels.
“According to the science, I guess, every time a lady takes a step in a high-heel shoe, there are as many as 600 pounds of pressure per inch on that heel, and most of the high heels are only about a quarter-inch wide,” he said. “So that means those kinds of shoes take a lot of pounding, and they do not last as long as they used to either.”
Not only have most of the family-owned shoe stores vanished from the area’s retail landscape, but the styles also have proven to be cyclical in nature.
“They all come around again and again. One year this style is popular, and then another year another is popular. And that’s true with both the men’s and women’s shoes,” Campeti said. “These days the platform shoes are making a comeback – not with the men but with the ladies. The men used to wear them back in the 1970s, but I’m not seeing those popular with guys now.
“Broad shoes, narrow shoes, I’ve seen it all, and I think there are only so many designs, and that’s why the trends keep going around and around. It’s like no one can think of anything new anymore,” he continued. “These days it seems people are buying the cheaper shoes, but if you are paying a little more for your shoes, then it makes sense to bring them in for a fix-up.”
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Downtown Wheeling has changed during the decades since the Campeti tradition replaced the first sole on the first shoe brought through the door, and today a church, an attorney’s office, a pizza shop, a travel agency, government offices, a community college, and a business information company fill buildings once home to King’s Jewelry, Bernhardt’s, Boury’s, McDonald’s, the Robinson car dealership, the Straub dealership, and Stone & Thomas.
There are empty storefronts, too, like the former Bill’s Hamburger, the Sesame Restaurant, Gerrero’s Music, the 1056 Lounge, Tom’s Pizza, Companion Products, Posin’s Jewelry, Arthur Treacher’s, Thom McCann’s, Ernie’s Cork & Bottle, the Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel Building, Dawson’s Meat Market, the Dinner Bell, Fiddlestick’s, Becker’s Hardware, and Kelly-Mike’s Sporting Goods.
And, of course, there are structures that once housed Juniper, National Record Mart, L.S. Good, G.C. Murphy, the Etc. steakhouse, the Army-Navy Store, Howard’s Diamond Center, Wheeling Antique’s, Reichart’s, and the M&H Shoe Store, the Imperial shops, Bing’s Furniture,and the 12th Street Grill that no longer stand.
Campeti enjoyed the glory days, he’s witnessed the decline, and now he is watching something he thought he never would see.
“There a lot of people concentrating on the downtown right now, and there are several buildings that have been bought up and getting renovated,” Campeti said. “And there is a lot of traffic that flows past the shop on Main Street. I have no idea where everyone is going, but it’s still good to see. I think the one thing that we really need in downtown is some kind of anchor store. I don’t know which one, and I don’t know if it’s even possible with the mall and The Highlands in existence, but I really think that is something we need.
“I like that the (Regional Economic Development Partnership) is working on the loft apartments in the Stone Center, and I know there are a lot of buildings being bought now, so that’s encouraging, but there’s not a lot more I can do with this property because of how much the code updates cost. If I wanted to put apartments on the floors above this shop, I would have to put a $40,000 fire escape on it, and that’s just not feasible.”
The addition of the gas and oil industries to the Upper Ohio Valley’s economy has proven to be a plus for Campeti’s business. Although often the few metered parking spots nearest to his storefront are filled with fracking-related vehicles driven by guests at the McLure Hotel, the out-of-state folks have discovered Market Street’s cobbler.
“I’ve seen a lot of cowboy boots and a lot of work boots, and those guys wear the real thing as far as boots are concerned, especially the ones from Texas. That’s been very good for the business,” he said. “But now my oldest son, Vincent, is a welder working the pipelines making more money than I do. He’s worked here a couple of summers before, but I couldn’t pay him anything close to what he’s making now.
“My 17-year-old son, Dominic, is a junior at John Marshall, and he does very well. When he was younger, he said he wanted to open up a chain of shoe-repair shops, but these days he’s looking at Ivy League schools, he’s tops in his class, and he plays three different saxophones and is very talented. So I have no idea what the future will be for me and this business,” Campeti said. “There may be someone out there who can do shoe repair who would want to allow me to go to part-time and eventually take over. I don’t see that coming into play for another 10 years or so, hopefully, but it is something I’ve thought about.”