Sole Man

He wields his shoe repair magic from behind a wall, much like the great and wonderful Oz. In a tiny downtown shop tucked in-between Lafayette Coney Island and the Arcade Bar, the mystery man who calls himself Mr. Tip Toe has been fixing shoes, purses and belts since the mid-1990s.

But what is his real name? Inquiring minds must, well, inquire.

"Just Mr. Tip Toe," he answers. "That's how everyone knows me."

When he was later told that a photographer would be coming by to take his photo, he declined. "I don’t want to be out riding my bike and have someone recognize me," he says.

Ah, but unbeknown to me, it turns out that Model D's ubiquitous lensman, Dave Krieger, had already caught up to the media-shy Mr. Tip Toe. He just might be recognized on that bike, after all.

Sex and politics

Tip Toe Shoe Repair is the kind of old-fashioned joint that can be found in any older metropolis. There used to be more of them, obviously – along with the barbershops, butchers, soda shops, bakeries and others of a similar mom and pop ilk.

Mr. Tip Toe took over the business in 1994, a natural career move considering he had been fixing shoes since he was a boy of four back home in Jamaica.

"I was always a curious guy, and there was a shoe shop on my street," he says. "All the guys hung out there, and they were always talking about sex and politics, the two most interesting topics to me." He picked up the trade gradually and when he moved to the United States in 1990 he worked at three different shops until he saved enough money to purchase Tip Toe.

The back room is jumbled with repairs yet to be done and machinery that would not look out of place in a 1950s period piece. They still work. As I watch, he fixes a pair of heeled sandals, deftly stitching a tiny piece of leather to the sole of a shoe. I imagine the owner wearing the delicate shoes at a wedding and taking one too many spins around the dance floor. Mr. Tip Toe has ensured that the owner will waltz in the shoes yet again.

Part of downtown's future

The favorite aspect of Mr. Tip Toe's chosen line of work is the satisfaction he is able to give his customers. "When I put them back together and a customer says, 'Wow!' with a smile on their face," he says. "I get a high from that."

When I ask him how many pairs he fixes in a given week, he goes quiet, running numbers through his head. Finally, he answers, "Lots. I can’t count them, it makes my head hurt," he says. "It's like dishwashing in a restaurant. They keep coming and you keep washing."

I ask his expert opinion on what brands of shoes hold up the best. He scoffs at the query. "I don't believe in brands," he says. "The best shoes are shoes that you can put on everyday and feel comfortable."

Mr. Tip Toe is happy with his downtown location. "It gives me the diversity that I like. I have customers from three counties," he says. As Detroit changes around him – the Book-Cadillac and The Griswold are taking shape right outside his windows – he feels secure in his place in the fabric of the city. "I hope to be a part of the future of Detroit," he says. "People always need shoes, so I will fit right in."

Tip Toe Shoe Repair is located at 127 Michigan Ave. Its phone number is 313-961-0066 and its hours are Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and Saturdays 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Kelli B. Kavanaugh is Development News and Innovation and Jobs News Editor for Model D and metromode.

All Photographs Copyright Dave Krieger

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