David and Virginia Pena stand close to each other, side-by-side behind the counter in their shoe repair shop. One gets the sense this is the way they have faced the challenges in their lives and their business: standing side-by-side.
The Penas call themselves cobblers, says David, as if it’s the most natural thing in the world and not an Old World term. “We fix shoes.”
And they are fixing them once again at El Cirujano Shoe Repair. “El Cirujano Shoe Repair means ‘The Surgeon,’ that that we operate on shoes,” David notes.
But if something needs stitching beyond shoes, David and Virginia will give it a try. So far, they have sewn up tents, repaired purses, even baseball gloves. After talking to us, a man brought in a pair of leather chaps for riding a motorcycle, which the Penas promised to fix right up.
David got into shoe repair because he was looking for a job. He walked into the Meijer in Jenison back when there was a shoe repair shop in some stores. “They told me, ‘Do you know how to fix shoes?’ And I said, ‘I don't know.’ I mean, I didn't know shoes can be fixed. And he said, ‘Yes. Come tomorrow morning, and I'll hire you.’”
He learned his craft and met Virginia, but the Meijer shoe repairs all closed. David went from job to job, and the couple decided to open a business. They found a convenience store, bought it, and ran it as a convenience store for a few years in the same building where El Cirujano is today.
But they closed the convenience store, returning to the skills David knew: shoe repair. Then he learned something about the building: “Everybody was telling me that right here in this building, about 35 years ago, actually was a shoe repair. And I didn't know about it.”
Meanwhile, David began teaching Virginia shoe repair, and the couple has been working side-by-side ever since.
David credits Virginia with his continued success as a cobbler. “She pushes me into more in the shoe repair. Sometimes I get something and say, ‘Oh my god, I cannot do it’ … And Virginia comes and tells me, ‘You can.’”
“I will say she's my power hour here.”
El Cirujano continues to slowly rebound from the pandemic. “When I heard about the pandemic, my wife told me, you better close,” David recalls. “Five months. It was a struggle. But we survived from the savings that we had.”
Upon reopening, business was slow as they only accepted business by appointment, and no one knew the shop had reopened. But David began posting videos on Facebook and YouTube, and, gradually, people began calling.
“I was actually happy seeing the customers back again to my business,” he says.