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A husband-wife duo Trametria and Bill Russell are once again manning the machines at Rex Shoe Repair, but the faces are new to the community.
“I noticed Bill was a different sort of person than the average person. He can pick up on anything and learn it so fast,” said the shop’s retired cobbler, Tim Schnell. “I worked with him for two or three months on special projects, and he is a genius. I asked him if he’d be interested in taking over the shoe repair business. I wasn’t sure, but I told him to try it, and within about two months time, he and Trametria were ready.
“To do this work, you’ve got to be willing to work hard and adapt, and that is what they did. They work so well together, and they remind me of when Kathy was alive. To do this business right, it takes a committed, hard-working husband-wife team.”
UNDER NEW MANAGEMENT
Schnell started with Rex in the early ’90s when it was still in historic downtown Wilson and soon moved the business to Brentwood for more foot traffic. Business picked up with his wife handling customers while he and other cobblers took care of the orders.
As shoemakers cut costs with lower-quality materials, business slowed. And in the wake of his wife’s mid-2017 death, Schnell struggled to make ends meet, eventually laying off his staff and shuttering the shop.
He began 2018 with a fresh start and a fresh vision with an emphasis on customers prepaying for orders since he had reportedly lost thousands in revenue for completed work that was never paid for or picked up.
He credits a Jan. 12, 2018, article in The Wilson Times for an uptick in business, which eventually led him to working with Bill Russell. The Arkansas native and his wife of 24 years were renting a home from one of Schnell’s friends, and they stayed in touch.
“He had to talk me into it because I thought, ‘Shoes? No.’” said Trametria. “It took me a while, but I jumped on board.
“That was the hardest obstacle,” Bill said with a laugh.
“Now I’m learning everything he does, so I can work on the shoes, too,” Trametria Russell said.
And Schnell is happy to bring new craftsmen into the fold.
“I’m excited about passing on the knowledge,” Schnell said. “Bill is a little genius. He is so smart it is unbelievable. He studies on the internet and already is building faith and support with the community.”
The Russells have owned a variety of businesses in the past, doing everything from automotive work to carpentry and operating a food truck in various states.
“I knew it was going to be a big responsibility coming into it and trying to fill his shoes, so to speak,” Bill Russell said. “It was kind of like walking on eggshells, but as we got to know the customers, it made things a lot easier. I’m more comfortable with it now.”
While Bill Russell has been working with Schnell for nearly a year, the change in management at the store happened at the start of October. Schnell is pitching in as the Russells need him, but changes have been led by the couple.
Whereas Schnell had limited hours to two days a week, the Russells kept Rex open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays and now are expanding the hours to include Mondays and Tuesdays. They also leased the adjoining storefront to allow for a more customer-friendly environment.
“The expansion allowed us to bring in some more equipment and allow a space for customers to sit and wait while some repairs are done,” Bill Russell said. “On women’s heels and other small repairs, we can do same-day pickup, but things that are more challenging could take a couple of days. If it is something I need Tim’s help with, I’ll put the pickup time a week out, but customers are really loving having some options of same-day pickup.”
In addition to new decor and signs that will be installed soon, a poster on the door bears the new business motto: “We are in the business of saving soles.” Trametria Russell said she’s had customers see the poster, laugh, then ask to take a picture of it.
“We love working with the customers,” she said. “Some will just sit down and chat. They are all so glad we’re here.”
The most popular repair is on women’s heels, but the cost of putting new soles and heels on men’s shoes means the two services represent the bulk of the shop’s revenue. They also offer services such as repairs of rips, tears and minor damage as well as shoe-shining.
“The hardest part is convincing customers that their shoes they love so much are worth saving,” Bill Russell said. “They’ll tell me how good the shoes feel, so I think it is definitely worth getting them fixed.”
And the Russells are passing the trade on to a new generation of cobblers.
Cameron Davis, 18, got a job through his pastor at Higher Calling Baptist Church — where Bill Russell serves as a minister and plays bass and Trametria Russell sings in the choir. Davis had played sports while attending Hunt High School, but got into some trouble and was trying to take some classes at Wilson Community College while finding a job.
He said his pastor suggested talking to the Russells, and for the last several months, he’s learned alongside the duo.
“I think it is cool because I never saw myself doing something like this, but I like learning from him. It is to the point where I’ll go home and practice my hand stitches sometimes,” Davis said. “I just thank God for giving me the opportunity, so I’m just trying to stay on the positive path.”
Rex Shoe Repair is at 2801 Ward Blvd., Suite 2B. Call the shop at 252-243-3571 for more information.