Arles Lopez at the counter of Champs Shoe Repair

SHOE SANCTUARY — Arles Lopez is ready at the front counter of his Downtown DeLand shoe-repair shop to serve customers who want to keep their quality footwear going for a few more years. While DeLand goes at its own pace outside the shop, inside the store, not a lot has changed, as Lopez continues the long-standing family tradition of shoemaking and shoe repair at the shop he bought from Gary Rowe in 1999. 

In my family, everyone’s a shoemaker. 

Seven of my uncles are shoemakers, every cousin is a shoemaker; everybody in my family makes shoes. I made my first pair on my own when I was 15 years old. They didn’t come out so good, but, you know, everything has a beginning. 

My beginning as a shoemaker was in my hometown of Pereira, Colombia. When I was 11 years old, I used to go to school from 7 a.m. to noon, and I used to work in the factory 1-7 p.m. 

When we lost my father, we learned to take care of each other. We did it; we made it. It wasn’t easy, but it’s the way it is. 

Arles Lopez at work

ARTIST AT WORK — Champ’s Shoe Repair owner Arles Lopez is hard at work fixing a pair of boots at his Downtown DeLand shop at 104 S. Woodland Blvd. Lopez has owned the shop since 1999, when he purchased the store from former owner Gary Rowe. While Lopez could retire, he said he loves his work too much to simply put down his tools and walk away. Below are some of the tools of his trade. 

I made shoes in my hometown until I turned 21, and I moved to the United States, to New York. 

When I first got to New York, I realized nobody spoke Spanish. Today, New York City is different. They say, in New York, people speak anything but English. But it’s an amazing city. I still have two of my brothers up there, and they own a shoe-repair shop. There aren’t many left in the family still doing this. 

It’s too expensive to make shoes nowadays, so I repair shoes. I have made shoes, too, though. In the past, I made two pairs of boots, and the guys who bought them paid me $600 each. Those boots are definitely still around, but I don’t know if the guys are still around. 

It’s not just shoes, either. I make belts, gun holsters, knife sheaths — anything to do with leather, and I’ve been working since I was 7 years old — all my life. 

Arles Lopez, young, in NY

FORMER NEW YORKER — Champ’s Shoe Repair owner Arles Lopez, left, is pictured with his friend Hugo Rodriguez in New York in this 1981 photo. Lopez moved to New York from Colombia when he was 21 years old. He misses the Big Apple sometimes, he told The Beacon, mostly because of the snow. More than 20 years after he left New York for DeLand, members of Lopez’s family still run a shoe-repair shop in New York City that’s similar to his shop in DeLand.

I lost an uncle to COVID-19, and he was the first to make shoes in the family. He originally came from the farm, moved to the city and learned to be a shoemaker. He trained his brother, and then it went from brother to brother to brother, to cousin to cousin. I was trained by two of my cousins! And then all of a sudden, everyone’s a shoemaker in the family. 

New York City was my home for 19 years before I moved to DeLand. We had been to Orlando to visit Disney World, and I thought to myself that I could see us living here. 

Before we moved, I was looking for a job in Florida. I made many phone calls, asking if anyone knew of shoe-repair work, and I found places in Orlando and Longwood, but the one I liked most was Champ’s in DeLand. 

When I asked the owner what his hours were, he said, “I’m open Monday to Friday 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m.” After coming from the high speed of New York, I liked that. So I decided I’d take a ride to DeLand to check out the shop. 

I rented a car in Orlando and started my drive to DeLand. On one part of Interstate 4, there were no buildings, and I started seeing cows. I said, “Holy cow, where am I going?” 

The first time I drove through in 1999, I looked at both sides of Woodland Boulevard, and thought this was a nice town. I found the shoe-repair shop, I parked across the street, and sat for two hours on a Friday afternoon, just looking at what was going on. 

After two hours, I came inside, and the owner was ready to lock the door and leave. I realized he wanted to sell the shop, and he gave me a price I couldn’t refuse. 

And I didn’t. 

I told the owner I would come back in three weeks, but I came back early, two weeks later, with a friend from New York to show him my new business. 

The owner saw me and said, “Today is Wednesday, I need you here Friday. I’m out of here.” 

Arles Lopez with Gary Rowe and daughters

OWNER TO OWNER — Current Champ’s Shoe Repair owner Arles Lopez, second from right, stands with his daughter, Sandra Lopez, and the shop’s former owner, Gary Rowe, along with his daughter, Ellen Rowe, shortly after Lopez purchased the store in 1999. Rowe had named his shoe-repair shop Champ’s in honor of his grandfather, Daniel Gainin Sr., who opened the family’s original shop in Downtown DeLand and called it Champ’s after the Champion Shoe Machinery Co., supplier of most of the repair equipment. Rowe had worked for his uncle, Daniel Gainin Jr., at Danny’s Shoe Shop before opening his own business and adopting Grandpa’s business name. 

He left me everything. Except his hammer; he took his hammer. 

He said, “This belonged to my grandfather; the rest is all yours.” 

Hammer in hand and crying a little bit, he opened the door and left. I spent almost a week fixing the place up and putting it together, and opened a quite different shop that next Wednesday. 

The first customer, a lady, opened the door, looked around and said, “Is this still a shoe repair?” I’ll never forget that. 

And you know what? I fell in love with this town. 

A lot has changed. There’s a lot of new people, and it’s grown a lot, but I have many fond memories here. 

On my second day in DeLand, I got a parking ticket. When I went to City Hall to pay for it, they asked me for $3. I remember I asked three times, “Are you sure?” In New York City, that ticket would have been $45! I’ll never forget that. 

Bedazzled shoes at Champs Shoe Repair

SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE — Beaded and bedazzled shoes decorate the front window at Arles Lopez’s shoe-repair shop in Downtown DeLand. 

I’ll also never forget how kind people have been during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

A lot of people supported me. One longtime customer asked how I was doing, and I told her my business was down about 60 percent. I had to close for six weeks. 

She brought me a bunch of her shoes, and she said, “You do whatever you have to do.” 

It kept me going! My landlord helped, too. He charged me only $1 rent for the first few months of the pandemic, and he kept my price down even longer, too. 

Right now, I have the green light to retire, but I don’t want to do that yet. A lot of people need me, and I love to do this stuff. I want to keep going until I can’t. 

The shoes made in China nowadays, they’re not exactly shoes, even if they look like shoes. Eventually, they’re going to ruin people’s feet. They have no support! 

That’s why what we do is important. 

I would love to train someone to take over the store for when I can’t do this any longer. They would have to be the right person, but I would be happy to train them. 

I’d like to try to get one of my cousins to take over. I’d hate to leave this town without a shoe-repair store. I’d hate to put a sign out that says “No more shoe repair.” The town doesn’t deserve that. 

My friends tell me I work too much, but I love my line of work. If I have the strength, I get up and come to work. 

Everything has a beginning and everything has an end, but I’m not ready to end my career here in DeLand. My wife and I plan to retire here, because we love this city. I miss New York sometimes — well, mostly the snow — but DeLand is where I’m happy. 

— Editor’s note: Do you have West Volusia Memories to share with readers of The Beacon? We would love to have your essay of 600-800 words, and any photos you might have to illustrate it. Send your memories or questions to info@beacononlinenews.com