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Cambridge’s resident cobbler, owner of Felix Shoe Repair, reflects on craft, life at 87
Christos Soillis’ apprenticeship began at 11 years old
Special to the Cambridge Chronicle
If business owners charged for honesty and generosity of spirit, Christos Soillis— the owner of Harvard Square’s Felix Shoe Repair at 1304 Massachusetts Ave. — would be on par with Elon Musk as a wealthy man.
“I have money in my pocket. I own my home,” he said. “That’s all I need.”
Soillis, 87, has been cobble-ing locally for almost 60 years, starting as an assistant in the shop’s basement in 1963. The square was bustling then with young men in coats, ties, pressed button-downs, and fedoras, the uniform of Harvard’s then all-male student body.
“I say to my friend, ‘What’s going on? They have a wedding? Why these people dressed up like this?’” His friend pointed to the gates of Harvard Yard: “‘Chris, you see these doors? Even King Constantine came through those doors before he be a king.’”
Soillis’ career launched when he was 11, living in a tiny village in northern Greece. His family was poor.
“We have eggs maybe every two weeks, one egg,” he said. “We have a chicken, maybe two times a year.”
His prospects were nonexistent. When asked what his family ate, he scoffs at meals as we know them.
“Breakfast? Who eat breakfast?” he said.
With no means and no obvious future, he was sent off by his parents to walk three and a half hours, he said, to become a cobbler’s apprentice. His lifelong friend, George Papalimberis, owner of nearby La Flamme Barber Shop, chuckles at the description.
“It was more like an hour and a half. Maybe it felt more than three,” he said.
Soillis’ father paid the man in olive oil for the opportunity.
“My father give me nothing but advice: ‘If you are good person, working, watching your health. I don’t know how they call it English. If you do this, you’re gonna have a better luck from me.'”
His mother gave him hugs, heartbroken her young son was leaving home.
“She cry,” Soillis said. “’Why I’m gonna lose you?’ I said, ‘Ma, I will not be a bad person. I promise I’m gonna live.’”
And live he did. Three years as an apprentice cobbler followed by more than a decade working at home, working for shoe shops in other towns, serving in the army, and twice, unsuccessfully, trying to start his own shoe business.
It was in Athens where he met and quickly married 17-year-old Maria, who was visiting with her mother from East Cambridge.
“It was how you say a match,” Soillis said, by which he means a match made in heaven as much as a matchmaking campaign by the teen’s father. “Maria was born in Longanikos where I work. I see her at 11 [when he was 26], all curls.”
Six years later, Soillis saw her again and was smitten. Within a month, they were married and heading to the United States.
“The first three years, me and my wife, we don’t have any penny,” he said. “Sometimes we have onions for dinner.” Ever the realist, he adds: “You have to sacrifice….you have to lose a few things to get ready to go the next step.”
The newly minted groom also didn’t speak English. But Soillis was driven by the voice of his father – “’Respect everybody. If you do that on you are next to the God.’” – and the need – and desire – to support his young bride.
Networking ultimately led to the shoe repair job in Harvard Square, with George who owned and ran Felix, then a streetside newspaper store. The shoe shop was below. “I get 69 cents an hour. Finally!” Soillis exclaims. His first year’s wages totaled $2,300.
In the years to come, Soillis supplemented his meager wages working at a ladies’ shoe factory in Kendall Square and at the Stride Rite factory in Boston.
“I working five, four and a half years, seven days a week, 18, 20 hours a day,” he said. “I try to learn whatever I can.”
Maria worked at a Brookline hair salon. They saved what they could and welcomed two children.
Buying the Harvard Square shop
By 1995, George’s sons wanted out of the basement shoe repair operation, the only property remaining from their father’s original holdings. Maria pressed her husband to buy the business and move into the storefront, despite the toll it would take on savings.
“She tell me, ‘You’re such a people person. How could you like be in the back of the store all the time?’ So, 32 years, no more basement!” Soillis said with a smile.
The new business owner settled into his new space, looking forward to turning his work ethic and sense of fairness into a strong sales flow. Based on several recent mornings in his store, he continues these practices.
When a graduating public health student steps in to resole his oxfords, Soillis snapped: “Don’t do it.”. “The style, the color is nice, but when this is dry, it’s dry…I fix it but when you wear and bend it… it gonna crack again.” He looks in the disappointed young man’s eyes. “Okay, I fix. But I not gonna charge you.” Before the customer can react, Soillis has snatched the shoes and written a claim check. “Ready later today, OK?”
Soillis has virtually the same conversation with the next customer, a middle-aged woman hoping to salvage faux leather sandals with a broken strap as well as a recent Harvard graduate with torn hockey pants. Both sales take a back seat to honesty.
Soillis insists that despite regularly declining payment, he has all he needs – to a point. He lost Maria to cancer eight years ago but from his reaction, her death seems recent. She was his heart, his soul, if not his moral compass.
‘Understand what happiness means’
“When my wife passed,” he said, “I was depressed and…three times I was ready to do suicide.”
A trip to see his sister did nothing to lessen the heartbreak. He returned to his shop where he has immersed himself ever since.
Soillis claims he is happy. His kids and grandchildren are nearby and he takes enormous pride in both.
“On Mother’s Day, my granddaughter, she want to go to Maria’s grave to put flowers. So thoughtful,” he said, teary.
And there is always work to be done. His is the last remaining shoe repair shop in the square after all.
For a man that has survived on the bare basics, it should be no surprise that happiness doesn’t seem to take much.
“People, they don’t understand what happiness means,” he said. “If I give you a $1 million, you don’t know how much worth it. A $1 million. Too much money. Me? Not much and that’s enough.”
“That damned mob of scribbling women. I should have no chance of success while the public taste is occupied with their trash.”