When my shoes are so worn through from stomping the Wellington concrete, interviewing its residents, that I can’t put it off any more, there’s only one place I go - to Dixon Street Shoe Repair.
This family business is in its second and third generation with father and son duo Esvar and Vijay Parbhu fronting the Dixon St shop at 39 Dixon Street since 1989. Mr Parbhu senior, father and grandfather to the current owners, founded the original business back in 1929 at its first location in upper Cuba St. And boy do they do a good job on my shoes!
The team at Dixon Street Shoe repair get to know their customers, meaning people come back again and again. They always take the time and trouble to ask after you, and find out how you are. “How’s your Mum?” Vijay always asks me, as I return my pair of Beau Coop Beau 5’s for the fifth time. Vijay is also a passionate Wellingtonian with lots of ideas for how we can improve our city. He believes we need to look ahead to twenty years in the future and think what the city will be like to preserve the special nature of the Te Aro quarter and ensure we’re able to protect the wonderful compact and friendly nature of our city.
As someone who is worried about the amount of rubbish on our landfills, I have particularly tried to take a ‘make-do-and-mend’ approach to my clothes and footwear which is why my preference these days is to buy well and get things repaired with people like Vijay, over and over. Call it slow fashion, anti-fast-fashion or just traditional: it makes sense. It’s what our parents used to do, and what our grandparents did. It also means that rather than clog up your wardrobe with lots of pieces which are falling apart, you might have one great pair of boots which you get re-soled or re-heeled, year on year.
Vijay and I chatted (with a few polite interruptions from customers) all about his life growing up in Wellington, getting a trade an why the Government should introduce a tariff on cheap plastic products, including footwear, to encourage people to buy well made shoes.
Lucy Revill: Vijay, where were you born?
Vijay Parbhu: I was born in Wellington Hospital in 1964…brought up in a big family! My first childhood memory is having all his family around me, doing all those things that families do together - crying together, laughing together, fighting together and eating together. Those are my first childhood memories.
LR: What area of Wellington did you live in?
VP: We grew up living in Thompson Street. We’ve always been quite central. Hence, we live in the city today. We’ve always been based around town and can’t see ourselves living anywhere else.
LR: ..and where’d you go to school?
VP: I went to two schools. First Mount Cook, here in the city, and then I was shunted out of Scots College out in Strathmore from around Year 6.
LR: How did you decide what you’d do for a living?
VP: I’ve worked my whole life; whether it was doing a paper round, or helping out relatives in the dairy shops, I’ve always been busy. In respect of a career, I’ve never identified with something like dentistry or being a lawyer. I’ve had a hands on approach. I like to mingle with people and take a friendly approach to business, assisting people. We have that here.
LR: When school ended, what were you thinking you would do?
VP: I don’t really know… I had no real direction there. I didn’t want to go to university and really wanted to start making money. I suppose being derogative from my childhood I knew the next step was to get into the real world. So I got a full time job in a wholesale department and never went back to school. I enjoyed the working environment and the ethics. I learnt off older peers on business. From there, I purchased my first dairy business as I was encouraged to do off an uncle who was a banker. It transpired from there really!
LR: How has the family business grown over the time you’ve been working here, since 1989?
VP: Initially, I developed by working for a furniture company and then took a managers role. The business went into administration after running three different businesses all at the same time. I was offered a trade, and fell into this position, never thinking about working with glues and solvents.
LR: How do you enjoy working on Cuba Street? Has it had any challenges?
VP: Here, in this block of shops where we stand, it almost didn't make it. 10 years ago there was a developer who wanted to put a 15 storey building. The only reason our shop is standing today is because of the Hannah’s Factory Building, and the fact that people protested. So we continue.
We’re in the working class area of the city. We’ve had two other shops on the Terrace, which were fine but people aren’t as friendly. We like the quirky character of people, customers talk to you, there’s characters like the odd glue sniffer and odd drunk. Its colourful and the people are quite neat. People will greet you. You’re close to everything.
LR: How much of family been a part of business at Dixon Street Shoe Repair for you?
VP: I was fortunate that my father was there to introduce me to the repair game, as his father did for him. Our family has now been doing shoe repair for three generations in Wellington, if not New Zealand. Other family members are in the business and in Molesworth Street, Ghuznee Street and Mount Victoria. They were started by my grandfather and his two brothers.
LR: I’m personally very interested in fighting against fast fashion. Do people see value in repairing what they already own?
VP: We’ve seen a diverse situation over the last 30 years! You used to always see well made shoes. Today, you or I could import a container of shoes. Many people voluntarily choose to only buy quality and get them repairs, instead of buying cheap shoes over and over.
LR: Do you have certain brands of shoes you prefer to work on?
VP: I certainly do. I enjoy working on certain quality brands like Loakes, Churchills, and RM Williams - you know that you're going to get a great product back to the customer. I used to love Mini Cooper shoes for the ladies, but alas the influx of cheap importation led them to close. Mi Piaci are producing good brands of shoes. What it comes down to is that we love working on shoes that will come up to be back to a good quality enable the customer to get much more wear out of them once they’ve been repaired.
You see the same shoes come up again and again - Converse; Bata Bullets. The shoes we wore in the 70’s. The fashion industry keeps trying to revise styles over and over.
Mostly the consumer doesn’t understand that there’s quite a process in repairing a sole. We first discuss what the customer wants from the sole replaced; something similar, something harder wearing, something softer? All those practical aspects that they need to understand.
Then we remove the sole, prepare the sole, glue the sole, dry the sole and then reheat with the heat elements to reset the sole. Theres then a press that we use to seal the sole, before we shave the edges of the sole and trim it smoothly to fit the edges and contour of the shoe. We tend to work in batches, so if we have half a dozen shoes that are similar, we do them all at the same time.
LR: How do you feel people are treating their clothes today?
VP: Of course, there is more fast fashion and disposable clothing than ever. We are seeing people more people bring in items which their parents gave them, and we also are seeing a lot more of second hand things.
LR: What has made Wellington a good city?
VP: It’s easy to get around and people are more friendly. It is a smaller city. When you go overseas, its always nice to be back; the air is fresh, the water is tasty; the cafe scene; its a friendly place and a safe place.
LR: What would you like to see for the future of footwear in New Zealand?
VP: As a work ethic, I’d like the Government go back to having tariffs for footwear and other things that are disposable so that there is a level of control over the nasty kinds of footwear which come in. They’ve introduced a ban on single use plastic bags but we need more. The kids of the next generation need to know more about using quality items. We’ve lost a lot of valuable craftsmen and craftsmanship because of the way the world has changed, not always for the better!