As small businesses nationwide struggle for survival, there’s a warm welcome to be found at one of the region’s oldest cobbler’s shops – despite the heating having to stay switched off. PETER BARRON reports

HE’S about to spend another winter’s day mending shoes, and John Potts is wearing four layers to keep warm at the traditional little shop that’s hardly changed for almost a century.

“The building’s that old, you wouldn’t believe how freezing it gets in here – you don’t need a fridge to keep the milk fresh,” he says, giving his faithful little dog, Millie, a loving hug.

Like his dad before him, John’s a craftsman when it comes to boot and shoe repairs. A good old-fashioned cobbler – a sole trader, if you like – he loves his job, even if there’s an economic chill in the air these days.

The shop, at 128 Parkgate, is a short walk from Darlington Railway Station, squeezed, inconspicuously, between the Black Swan pub and a business selling CCTV cameras and burglar alarms.

Last winter, one of John’s customers called by with a flask of hot tea and an electric heater because she was worried about him. It was nice of her, he acknowledges, but  he daren’t put the heater on this year because of energy prices going through the roof.

The pandemic years were hard enough and, as soon as they were officially over, the cost-of-living crisis piled on the pressure. With rising costs, John admits to being anxious about how long the business can survive. For example, a tub of shoe glue that cost £40 last year has gone up to £70, and staying warm at work is a luxury he's having to do without for now.

“I’ve got Long Johns on, plus two pairs of tracksuit bottoms over my work trousers – I can hardly move,” he laughs.

John was brought up on Darlington’s Skerne Park estate and has fond memories of coming into the shop as a bairn when his dad, Alan, was plying his trade. Alan had taken over the shop after leaving the Army in 1957, succeeding “boot repairer” Walter Neave who’d had the place since 1924.

“There was a fishing tackle shop over the road, and me and my mate, Brian Alderson, used to buy our maggots there before fishing down the river at Broken Scar.

“We’d call in to see me dad and he’d give us a bit of money to buy broken biscuits at Clayton’s, opposite the theatre,” he recalls. “Me and Brian also used to go upstairs to catch pigeons that had got in through the broken windows. I still see Brian and we still talk about it now. Happy days.”

John’s older brother, also called Alan, took over the shop when their dad died, and he ran it for “donkey’s years”, maintaining the traditions and old machinery that had stood the test of time.

When he was in his twenties, John helped Alan out in the shop, but stopped when he started working full-time for engineering company Mech Tool. “I did night shifts, seven days a week, and I bloody hated it,” says John with a grimace.

In the meantime, Alan opened another cobbler’s shop in Bondgate and his son, Shane, looked after Parkgate for a while. Then, seven years ago, John was given an escape route from his night shifts, with Alan and Shane offering him the chance to take over the original business, which also does key-cutting and sells watch batteries.

“It took me ten seconds to say ‘yes’ and it’s the best thing I ever did because of the people I get to meet,” he says.

“I’ve got more friends now than I’ve ever had. There’s so much kindness out there – people bring me bars of chocolate, cream cakes, and hot drinks, and Millie gets spoiled too.

“There’s an old man who’s a regular – a proper gent in a shirt and tie. His wife had to go into a home with Alzheimer’s, and he just sits in a chair and talks. There’s a lot of old customers come in, and they want to tell you their life stories. I feel like Dear Deidre sometimes, but I love listening. You learn a lot.”

Whoever comes through the door, John believes in ‘old school’ customer service with the job done to a high quality. “Do it right and treat them well and they come back,” he reasons. It’s the way he was taught.

“A policeman turned up one day, wanting his sole sticking down on one of his boots. I sorted it, and he asked how much he owed me. It only took 10 minutes and a bit of glue, so I told him not to worry. He was back an hour later with 18 cans of lager as a thank you.”

Millie, the Shih Tzu puppy, also attracts plenty of treats, with people popping in to see her whether they’ve got shoes in need of repair or not. “I think she’s the most popular dog in Darlington!” suggests John.

Enigmatically, he mentions that there are times when life as a cobbler throws up the unexpected and, when asked to elaborate, he turns a bit coy.

“It’s just that sometimes shoes and boots are dropped off, and you find things inside that people have forgotten they’ve put there – it’s amazing what you find,” he explains with a sheepish grin.

Under further interrogation, he goes on to reveal that a pair of women’s boots arrived a few years back, and inside one of them was a particularly surprising item. Let’s just say it was something that’s best kept out of sight in a bedroom drawer!

“Honestly, I swear it’s true!” insists John, in case I might think the story’s a load of old cobblers.

Just then, the door rattles and a young man bursts in. A return customer, he’s clearly in a hurry, and slides a pair of black loafers across the counter.

“What can I do for you this time?” John asks.

“Hey, you’re the shoe doctor – you know best. I trust you, man,” comes the reply.

“They're in a bad way but I’ll sort it,” John promises as the customer makes a sharp exit with a parting pat for Millie.

Read next:

If you want to read more great stories, why not subscribe to your Northern Echo for as little as £1.25 a week. Click here

The shop might get cold in the winter, but John Potts brings a natural warmth to his profession. Coming up 60 with a couple of grandkids, he’s a well-worn character: friendly, down-to-earth, and passionate about his family’s age-old, dying craft.

He's a reminder of why, amid the cost-of-living crisis, small businesses like his need all the support they can get.

“There are good days and bad days, but I don't ever want to pack in – I enjoy it too much,” he declares. “Whatever happens, I’m looking forward to the spring!”