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Art and Tradition of Shoemaking

Kegam Balian has made shoes by hand since he was 11 years old.

Kegam Balian's wife, Alice, is in an enviable position. Kegam is a shoemaker and she has owned a pair of shoes for every woman's style he has ever designed. He has been making shoes for 60 years, and they have been married for 47.

With his gnarled hands, he massages the leather on a pair of orthopedic shoes he recently created. He works part time in a back room in Sterling Shoe and Leather Repair at Sterling's Clock Tower Community Plaza and at the family's other business, Countryside Shoe and Leather Repair on Pidgeon Hill Drive.

His sons, Alex and Aris, run the cobbler shops, selling new safety work boots and shoes, and repairing footwear, luggage and purses. It's a family affair. Alice Balian serves Armenian food she has prepared at home and stuffed into plastic containers for lunch. They gather around a table in the back and enjoy rice, kabobs and Mediterranean salad.

Alice Balian works at a sewing machine doing alternations in the showroom, where Alex Balian's one-year-old child, Kegam, sleeps in a playpen. Alex Balian's wife, Loucine, does the billing and customer service.

Alex Balian, 34, and Aris Balian, 30, say they are fourth generation cobblers, but of the modern day variety. They no longer make shoes by hand, the tradition of their father, grandfather and great grandfather. But they rebuild shoes and make them "like new," Alex Balian said. "We take soles off, put new ones on and then sew them all," he said.

The craft of the actual shoemaking is a dying custom. The cost is prohibitive compared to machinery-made footwear. "In the United States, making shoes is not a good way of making a living," Alex Balian said. "It's hard, because everything is made in China."

THE BALIANS, who lived in Yerevan, the northern part of Armenia near the Caspian Sea, moved to Sterling 15 years ago. Kegam Balian 71, speaks in broken English and Armenian. His sons do some of the translation.

"When I first make shoe, design, I wanted to show, I make for my wife. When I came here, she had 35 pairs of shoes and how many purses? I don't know," he said, a smile creasing his tanned face.

Actually, Kegam Balian started his craft many years before he met Alice. He was 11 when he made his first pair, which he wore himself. "It was not a perfect shoe, because I was so young," Aris Balian said, translating for his father.

When Kegam Balian lived in Armenia, he spent his days at the drawing board designing the shoes and running a factory where workers made them by hand. He also made five or six pairs a day. He estimates he has crafted millions.

Alice Balian was a trendsetter. She wore his latest designs before they hit the stores. When a merchant came to Kegam's shop, she would model the new shoes.

"Mom would be wearing it," Aris Balian said. "Then they would say they want 50 pairs."

THOSE DAYS are long gone. Now Kegam Balian works part time, makes about 100 orthopedic shoes a year, and assists with the repairs. "Customers come with a prescription from their chiropractor or foot doctors," Aris Balian said. "It's amazing what a quarter inch will do for a back and a knee. We do lifts. We do wedges, if a person is rolling their foot out, to balance it. We stretch the shoes if they have swelling or we customize shoes for customers who are in between sizes."

Aris Balian calls his father an "encyclopedia," because he has the answers to any of the problems their customers' footwear presents. A client recently asked him to design a shoe with an ice pack in the sole for injured feet. The invention looks like a sandal.

Aris Balian said his father likes working with his hands, and he is glad he had the opportunity to follow his father and grandfather's footsteps. "It's hard work, but it's challenging."

"When we rebuild shoes, he looks them over," Alex Balian said. "He watches everything to make sure it's working well."