YORK — York Boot N’ Repair on the east side of Grant Avenue has now been in existence for 100 years.
There were several family generations over the course of decades, and the business has been in the trusted hands of current owners Randy and Tammy Obermier since January of 1999.
In 1921, John “Dad” Garner moved from Gresham to York and began making harnesses and repairing shoes in the location the shop is at today. When someone took his photo out back, on a day in 1921, the look of downtown York was very different than today. There are trees in the background of what seems to be almost a rural setting.
Dad Garner operated the Rapid Shoe Repair shop until 1934, when his son, Elmer LaRue “Louie” and his wife, Thelma, bought the company to carry on the family tradition and keep the community’s staple shoe, leather, harness and repair shop going.
Thelma said in a past York News-Times article that she remembered how the “soldiers stationed at the Fairmont Air Base were some of our best customers. If they brought in their boots in the morning, we would assure them that their footwear would be ready at closing time. We knew there would be a possibility they would be shipped overseas the next day. It was one of the things we could do for the war effort.”
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The business, which was located next to the feed store, was a major Saturday night destination for those living in the rural area around York. Farmers brought their eggs and milk to town to sell, the families did their shopping, and the harness/shoe/leather shop was a regular stop.
The couple operated the shop together for 35 years, until Louie’s death in 1984.
In an interview in 1986, Thelma told the York News-Times, “I always said we were together 24 hours a day. We came to work together in the morning and went home together at night.”
When Louie died, Thelma continued to keep the shop in operation. “I just like to work,” the Bradshaw native said. “I came from the county where we worked hard.”
At that point, the harness business had pretty much gone by the wayside with the advent of cars and fewer people being in the horse business.
But the shoe and overall leather business continued to be strong.
Following his father’s death, their son Jack – who was the York postmaster at the time – worked with Thelma after hours several days a week. He already had plenty of experience at the store because he was the in-house shoeshine boy as a kid, and he learned to fix saddles when he was a junior high student. Sometimes they were joined by Jack’s son, Rick, which meant four generations of the Garner family had worked with this special craft.
In 1993, Thelma turned 90 years old and Jack persuaded her to slow down, although she still came to the shop every day. That year, Jack and his wife, Marilyn, purchased the business from Thelma. He said, “The shoe repair business is pretty much second nature to me.”
In 1998, the Garner family announced that after holding down the east side of the square for almost eight decades, the business was closing. It was a busy time as people dropped by to pick up their shoes or to say goodbye.
“I sure have gotten to know a lot of people over the years,” Jack Garner said to as they prepared to close. “It’s almost like they are co-owners. Without them, I wouldn’t be here. That’s what I will miss the most.”
That week, someone submitted a question to the newspaper asking, “What is the town going to do now with the shoe repair shop closing?”
The Obermiers read the question in the newspaper. They, too, wondered what the town and the surrounding community was going to do without the many-decades-old institution.
The Obermiers already had jobs — Randy worked at WyAd and Tammy was in daycare.
They wondered if this was a business they should pursue together.
“We came down here and talked to Jack,” Randy said. “We spent a few Saturdays with him, to see if this is something we wanted to do,” Tammy said.
The Obermiers decided to go for it, and on January 4, 1999, they unlocked the door of York Boot N’ Repair to find Dick Robson and Ron Palik waiting for them.
“They were our first two customers,” Randy remembers. “And they stayed regulars for many years.”
Jack stayed with them for six months, teaching them the craft and the business.
“Then one day, he said, ‘You are on your own. I have nothing left to teach you,’” Randy said, chuckling. “I didn’t blame him; they were ready to move on.”
The Obermiers still have a strong relationship with Jack. Randy says Jack is 94 years old now, and he still comes in every once in a while “just to check on us.”
The business has changed over the years. Hardly any of the equipment from the Garner generations is still used, because it has all been updated. The Obermiers do more retail business. Randy went to school in 2005 to become certified in customized orthotics, which is a major part of the business today. And they have their awning business – which has been really busy in recent years with the city’s downtown revitalization program.
Some things stay the same – they fix people’s shoes and boots (some until way past their life expectancy), they replace zippers (lots of zippers), they work on all types of leather products and they do a large number of additions to fix leg length discrepancies.
Their clientele comes from all over — they have regular customers from throughout the state and the Midwest. They also ship items to many corners of the nation.
“This isn’t the easiest craft to do and in this day and age, it’s a pretty rare craft. There are not a lot of people who do this kind of work anymore,” Randy said. “I guess we do something people don’t want to do and don’t know how to do. So we stay pretty busy. It’s just the two of us working here and we take on as much as we can handle.”
“I have to say, every day is an adventure,” Tammy added.
“To our knowledge, York is the smallest community in Nebraska to have a shop like this, being open full time,” Randy said. “Most towns bigger than us don’t even have one shop like this any longer. It’s worked well for us, and we enjoy it. Sure, it’s a lot of work, but we are just going to keep doing it.”
The Obermiers are nowhere near retirement age yet. However, they hope someone will carry on when they are ready to step away in a decade or so.
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