Stepping out... after 38 years

Tom and Sinead Dwyer opened their Cobbler shoe repair business in Cork city in 1980. They tell ROZ CROWLEY why they are moving out to concentrate on their Douglas Court operation
Stepping out... after 38 years
Tom Dwyer, of the Cobbler, Oliver Plunkett Street, Cork. /Picture: Jim Coughlan.

THEY have spent 38 years transforming down-at-heel customers into the well-heeled — but now Tom and Sinead Dwyer are preparing to step out of their landmark Oliver Plunkett Street shop for the last time.

The iconic Cobbler business at No.110, opposite the General Post Office, will close on January 31 — however, the couple will continue to run their business at their current premises in the Douglas Court Shopping Centre.

It will be a wrench to leave the city centre site which served them well for so long.

“We have loyal customers,” says Sinéad, “and we are loyal to them and enjoy the chat.

“We have regulars since we opened 38 years ago. They have grandchildren now, like ourselves.”

The Cobbler Leather Shop first opened in 1989, providing a service mending shoes, and has since become an artisan trade institution on the street, which in 2016 won the prestigious Great Street award.

But Tom and Sinead Dwyer decided to sell their premises to concentrate their efforts on an expanded premises in Douglas Court Shopping Centre, where they opened a store in 1991.

They may be heading towards retirement age, but they are not ready to give up working yet, merely wishing to simplify and consolidate the business.

The Dwyers are re-deploying the longest-standing members of staff who wish to continue with them in Douglas.

When they started out on Oliver Plunkett Street almost four decades ago, it was at the height of a recession and a time when people curtailed their spending on new shoes and made the best of what they had by re-soling, heeling and even dying their footwear to give them a fresh look.

The profile of The Cobbler business has changed in the last ten years. Inexpensive shoes, not built to last, cost as much to repair as to buy, so The Cobbler diversified into retail of bags, backpacks and accessories, as well as further developing the long-standing key-cutting service.

“We had to adapt,” admits Tom. “We had a mortgage to pay, and loyal staff to support, and our business went from 100% service, to 50% retail.

“Customers trusted us already, and we stocked bags that wouldn’t let them down.”

Those bags and the key cutting service are continuing in Douglas Court.

Numerous floods saw the Dwyers coping with the vicissitudes of city trading. “The city is built on a marsh. We have to watch tides and anticipate floods, and with the recent warnings, we have been prepared for any problems which have arisen,” says Sinéad.

Worse for them was a fire which took hold in 2005 and necessitated closing for three months, while they continued to trade in Douglas Court only.

Undaunted, they got back and picked up where they left off. Resilient is a byword for this energetic, charismatic couple.

When, in 1993, they needed to refurbish their shop, they simply moved a 20ft container to right outside the premises, transferred their equipment, set up a counter and continued with business as usual.

The renovations took three weeks at a time when there was less traffic and no pedestrianisation. But fellow traders were kind and didn’t object, appreciating the importance of keeping staff employed and customers happy.

“The council was tolerant too, to be fair”, says Tom. “They could see we had to be imaginative and keep the show on the road.

“We only took up one parking space and were ready with a parking disc if we needed one!”

Sinéad says she had a few memorable moments, including when she saw a thief taking one of their bags. 

“My instinct kicked in and I ran after her down the street. I caught her by the scarf, but she kept running and left me with the scarf in my hand.”

At that point a man from the Port of Cork came to Sinéad’s rescue and followed the thief and her husband, who had joined them in the chase. Another person called the gardaí and the couple were duly arrested.

“They were both taken away in separate squad cars and that’s the last we heard of it, except for a garda who came a few days later with the bag,” says Sinead.

“I know I could have been hurt, but you don’t know what you’ll do until you are faced with someone who is affecting your business. I don’t know if I would do it again.”

Another time a woman arrived to have shoes stretched. The only problem was they were two left shoes!

The Dwyers are sad to leave the city centre, but the time is right for them personally. More importantly, they hope their customers who come from all over the city and Munster, to have their shoes repaired, will follow them to Douglas Court.

It’s time for The Cobbler to move, but not too far.

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