The Man Behind the Mannequin: Cobbler brings art and opinions to Highland Square

words and photos by Susan Pappas

Blink and you might miss the tiny little shop tucked into the corner of the Highland Theatre building on West Market Street in Highland Square. 

But something makes you look again. It’s the odd sight of a mannequin in the storefront window dressed in a purple bat-woman suit and high-top black boots. 

Her name is Emma-Glendora and she’s not there by accident. Her quirky presence, changing outfits and occasional political commentary are designed to get your attention — and are just part of the funky yet functional little place called Highland Shoe Repair. 

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Owner Bob Ferguson, also known as Shoe Bob, is the man behind the mannequin and the counter, where he has been practicing the dying art of repairing shoes for Akronites for the last 27 years. Like his store, Bob is unconventional, iconoclastic, funny, creative and unapologetically political. 

Three signs in his storefront window hint at his sensibilities: “What’s wrong with Batwoman? HINT: She needs a mask…so do you! No mask, no service.”

Indeed, everything inside his shop — from the celebrity wall of signed photographs to the T-shirts he wears and the vintage shoe-repair equipment he uses — is uniquely Bob and begs for a story. 

And like someone who has been around for a while, 62-year-old Shoe Bob is more than happy to oblige.

Dressed comfortably in shorts and white tennis shoes, his black T-shirt features the sneering face of Ghoulardi, the iconic Cleveland late-night horror movie host from the 1960s. If you don’t know Ghoulardi, Bob can fill you in: Not only did Bob know Ghoulardi personally, but he wrote jokes and designed a logo in the late 1970s for the iconic late-night horror hosts who took over after Ghoulardi, Big Chuck and Little John, at WJW-TV Channel 8. 

He’ll also tell you that while he may be the last of a dying breed, he never really planned on being a cobbler. He wanted to be an editorial cartoonist, but after attending Kent State University two different times over a decade to pursue a graphic arts degree, he presciently saw the future. 

“I didn’t get a degree, but I got an education,” he said. “I could see that what I was going for was not going to be there in 10 or 20 years.” 

The decade of his 20s played out with a stint in the military and a series of failed job experiences that always ended the same way: Ferguson would get fired due to a falling out with the boss, his refusal to follow the rules, or both. That’s when he had an epiphany. He needed to be his own boss.

Fate led him to Highland Shoe Repair in 1993. Bob was in his early 30s and had been apprenticing for a few years at a regional chain called Shoe Fixers. When the owner put Highland Shoe Repair up for sale, he seized the opportunity to buy the business.

“I don’t love shoe repair, but I can be compensated for it, and I love not having a boss — there is much to be said for that,” Bob said. “I hated having to sell things to people that they didn’t want and you can never tell a boss that they are wrong or that you don’t want to do something. I could sleep at night. It was either this or become an astronaut.”

Owning his own business also gave him the freedom to be around while he and his wife, Pat, raised their daughter.  And opening the store just three days a week also allowed him to devote more time to his art of creating and selling collectible mini-sculptures of the late-night horror hosts he knows so well. 

“There’s the old saying that the worst thing about doing something you love is that someone will make a job out of it,” he said. “Studio art is not as dependable as shoe repair. And art will always be waiting for me when I retire.” 

Ferguson acknowledges that retirement may not be that far away and he won’t try and sell his shop because there is no future in shoe repair.

“I could not, in good conscience, try and sell this business to someone else knowing that there is not going to be a market for it,” he said. “They don’t make shoes to last anymore.They make them to be thrown away and people just buy new ones.”

In spite of fewer people using his services, Bob suffers no fools when it comes to his store’s ticket rule. When you drop off your shoes, he provides a numbered ticket, the only way he has to track his work.  If you don’t have that ticket when you come for your shoes, not only will you have to wait till the end of the day for Bob to look for your shoes, you will likely get a stern look. 

He explains, “During the work day, I don’t have time to go through everything and try and find someone’s shoes. It’s not fair to waiting customers and it also puts me behind in my work.”

Rules aside, Bob still gets creative license to express himself, much like he had hoped to do as an editorial cartoonist. He often uses the store’s front window to make commentary on what’s going on in the world — but not everyone likes what he’s had to say, as Bob found out when his store was vandalized with paint a few times just after Donald Trump was elected in 2016. 

“The window works as a blank platform for me to pontificate, as it were,” he said. “Just after the election, I took aim at Donald Trump with a figure of the Statue of Liberty with a bag over her head. That triggered a response from the deplorables.”

Highland Shoe Repair’s proximity to two popular entertainment venues, the Tangier and Akron Civic Theatre, brought him unlikely brushes with fame. Bob was one of the go-to people called upon when actors needed shoe repairs before their performances. When he would drop off their repaired shoes, Bob made sure to get a photo of himself with the celebrity. So began his wall of fame.  

One of his favorite stories to tell is how he first met Akron native Chrissie Hynde, lead singer of The Pretenders. He was working late at his shop one night after hours when he suddenly heard a knock on the window. He looked up and there stood Hynde.

“She said she was just passing by, was in love with my window and wanted to say hi,” Ferguson recalls, laughing. “When her parents were still alive, she’d drop off boots from time to time and in her case, I would never charge her. Her money is no good here.”

He also remembers Black Keys frontman Dan Auerbach coming into the store to have his boots fixed when he still lived in the area. 

“I haven’t seen him in a while,” Ferguson jokes. “I’m pretty sure he found someone else to fix his boots in Nashville. Either that, or he just buys new ones.”

Highland Shoe Repair, 828 W. Market Street, is open from 10-5 Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Reach them at (330) 376-9670

Susan Pappas is a writer, editor and longtime Akron-area resident. She loves meeting interesting people and bringing them to life with her words and photographs. In her spare time, she dreams of new ways to be creative and one of her next projects will focus on turning the hilarity and hijinks of her two wiener dogs, Kiki and Carly, into a children’s book series.