In 1893, George Ernst Steube, from Eisenach, Germany, got off a boat in Baltimore harbor. One hundred and ten years later the shoe repair business he established is still family owned and operated by his great granddaughter, Barbara L. Steube.
It is not only the oldest shoe repair and leather service business in the Commonwealth of Virginia, it is an Alexandria institution with a fiercely loyal following. It recently moved to its fourth Old Town location at 124 N. Fayette St.
"When he got off the boat he went to Wisconsin to be with family and enter the logging business which, in those days, was more lucrative than being a cobbler," Barbara Steube said of George Ernst Steube. "But he broke his leg and couldn't log."
That's when George Steube decided to return to the east and take up the profession of cobbler. "He joined a wagon train going east, became good friends with some Polish, Italian and Jewish families, and ended up settling in Halifax County, Virginia," Steube explained.
"In February, 1896, he opened his shoe repair shop there and its been going ever since. We now have the fifth generation entering the business, my son Kurt," she said. Her late husband, Kasper, opened the Alexandria store in 1969 at 106 and a half N. Columbus St.
The other unusual aspect of Alexandria Shoe Repair and Leather Service is that it is not only owned by a woman but she is the cobbler. And not just a cobbler. Steube is a certified Orthotist. This means she fills physicians prescriptions for custom orthotics.
"I can fill any orthopedic physician's prescription," she said. Steube work for approximately 200 doctors as well as the Veteran's Administration and Children's Hospital.
"Just, this morning I had a small child in here who needed corrective shoes. We did it and he was able to walk across the room," she pointed out.
"I have also done work for a lot of famous people across the nation. They mail their shoes to me and we ship them back," Steube said. That list includes U.S senators and representatives, movie stars such as Elizabeth Taylor and Chuck Norris, and even President Gerald Ford.
FORGET THE FAMOUS and infamous, what about the locals? They are Steube's biggest fans.
"I visit her very often. Many times just to visit and pet Dapper. I also take my little dog, Abby, along. Barbara is a very warm personality and her workmanship is incredible," said Ester Mulligan of North Pitt Street, who's been going to Alexandria Shoe Repair for five years. Dapper is Steube's shelty and constant companion at the shop.
"People stop in all the time just to share their lives. She is very involved with her customers and she really adds to the fabric of this community," Mulligan added.
Karen Cardullo, also of N. Pitt Street, goes back 24 years with Steube. "Barbara's shop was across the street from Christ's Church. That's when we first met. She made the effort to get to know you as well as doing great work," she said.
"It was so unusual to find such service. I've followed her for years, through all the different locations. But I didn't realize it was a family business until this last move," Cardullo said.
"She always makes the old shoes look new. She brings new life to old shoes. And in the process, she makes you feel a part of the community. It's a hometown spirit. She gives you that neighborhood feeling," Cardullo said.
Dick Trumbo drives in from Fort Hunt Road, south of Alexandria, to bring his work to Steube. He's been doing that for the past 15 years.
"My old shoe repair place changed hands and that's when I found Alexandria Shoe Repair," he explained. "They've done excellent work for us not only with shoes but luggage and other leather goods. I have never considered any place else since I found them, and won't."
Steube deals with anything leather and some fabrics. They also dye leather and dyeable fabrics. "We used to make shoes but not any more," Steube clarified.
"I use the very finest materials I can get my hands on. My vendors know better than to send me anything inferior. If they do they get it right back," she insisted. "You have to go after the best materials. Take on the impossible and make it possible."
Mary Frances Varner, a 13-year customer, can attest to that. "I'm a shoeaholic and they do quality work. They are also such great people," she said
Varner lived three doors from Steube's second location at 113 S. Columbus St. When Steube moved across the street to 110 S. Columbus St. in 1999, "I just happened to move at the same time. I was living right next door," she said.
When 110 S. Columbus St. was sold in 2003, Steube stayed until 2004 when the new landlord increased the rent, "I decided the place was too small and I wanted to have a place that I designed," she explained. She had been located at 113 S. Columbus St. from 1986 to 1999, and left there when it was sold and turned into an art gallery.
"I finally have the perfect repair shop in my field," she said standing in her newly renovated 1,400 square foot shop. "I designed the lay out working with the architect and engineers." It even contains a display case with 100-year-old shoe repair tools used by her great grandfather watched over by his photograph.
When her first husband, Kasper, had a severe heart attack in 1978, "That's when I came into the business full time. I worked 16 hours a day and tripled the business. I really love it," she said.
AT THE TIME they lived on Russell Road. Now she and her new husband, Edward, reside eight miles west of Warrenton. She has been there for the past 17 years.
Edward's wife died within two weeks of Kasper. He had been a customer. They have been married for five years, he acknowledged.
"We address our work like an art. We still do it the old fashioned way. We cork and relast shoes to their original shape We can repair and work with anything leather," Steube emphasized.
"I expect to pick up new customers at this location. But I really want to keep my old customers," she confided. "And I've never been afraid of competition. Because, I'm the best."