The Greater Fergus Falls team loves watching new businesses grow and thrive in our community. Over the years, we’ve had the pleasure of welcoming businesses of all sizes, types, and industries to the area, including pop-up shops like Peney Cakes to permanent establishments like Better Hands Massage Therapy.
We’ve seen more niche businesses open in the Fergus Falls region recently. These types of retailers, which provide products and services in a specialized industry, are a huge benefit to the community. They encourage residents to shop locally by offering goods and services they would otherwise have to travel to find. In turn, keeping dollars local ensures more money is reinvested in the community and supports future growth opportunities.
One of the newest niche businesses to open in Fergus Falls is 4th Generation Shoe & Leather Repair. Gerald Bermel opened the shop, which provides cobbling services, in early 2020. Keep reading to learn more about this specialized industry and what makes Fergus Falls an attractive option for niche businesses like 4th Generation Shoe & Leather Repair.
What is Cobbling?
Cobbling is a trade that dates back centuries to when shoes were made one at a time by hand. While it’s easy to confuse a cobbler with a shoemaker, the former’s expertise lies in repairing shoes rather than making them. Leading up to and throughout the 18th century, people typically wore the same pair of shoes for years. Excessive wear bolstered the need for shoe repair, which made cobbling an in-demand trade. In addition to shoes and leather goods, today’s cobblers are skilled at repairing items such as zippers, belts, luggage and purses, sporting equipment, boat and lift covers, and leather apparel.
It can take years to master the trade of cobbling. Experienced cobblers have undergone specialized training in shoemaking, which includes learning the natural characteristics of leather and mastering various repair techniques. Many also take part in apprenticeship programs lasting two to five years to learn the art of shoe and leather repair from skilled cobblers.
A Trade on the Decline
Cobbling takes incredible skill and attention to detail. Unfortunately, there has been a steady decline in tradespeople who possess those skills. So much, so that shoe repair is quickly becoming a dying art.
“With most cobblers retiring and fewer individuals apprenticing, the shortage of quality cobblers will only continue. Shoe repair shops and cobblers are disappearing quickly, especially with the ‘throw away’ quality of so much of what is on the market today,” explains Bermel.
In the 1940s, there were more than 60,000 shoe repair shops sprinkled throughout the United States. In just three decades, that number dwindled to just 15,000 and has continued to decline. The Shoe Service Institute of America (SSIA) reports that there are now fewer than 6,500 shoe repair shops across the country. The ones that are left tend to be multi-generation owned as the skill is often passed down from one generation to the next.
Bermel’s own connection to the trade runs four generations deep. His great-grandfather learned the skill while living in Germany in the 1860s. He then passed it down to his son, who kept the tradition going. Bermel eventually learned the trade from his father while working in his shop after school.
The generational ties Bermel has to the cobbling trade inspired the name of his own business. He opened 4th Generation Shoe & Leather Repair after spending 44 years in the utility industry. While he’s happy to return to a trade he loves, Bermel views it as more of a hobby than a business. “I’m only open on Mondays, and there are some weeks I’m not able to be open. I’m operating strictly as a small side business,” he explains.
Even though the cobbling industry has seen a decline in tradespeople, Bermel doesn’t think the demand will die out completely. “There is still a lot of high-quality footwear that is expensive, and people like to repair those when it makes sense,” he says. Bermel has no plans to expand into a full-service shoe and leather repair shop, but he thinks Fergus Falls would be an ideal location for this type of niche business.
“I am more convinced than ever that a full-service [shoe and leather repair] shop would be a very viable business in Fergus Falls. The quality of life is excellent, and the opportunities are unlimited. There [are] plenty of choices for a business location with reasonable rent and monthly fixed costs,” Bermel says. “It would be an ideal location for an experienced cobbler that would like to be in a mid-sized city in a rural setting.”
Our team at Greater Fergus Falls has to agree with Bermel’s assessment!
Bringing Niche Businesses to Fergus Falls
Startups and established enterprises alike can benefit from setting up shop in the Fergus Falls region. The region has continued to see steady economic growth, as well as an increase in the rural housing market. Initiatives like The Big Build and a surge in the rural rebound movement have encouraged more people to relocate to the area. When you add in the low cost of living, high quality of life, short commute times, and recreational opportunities, it’s easy to see why so many people choose to set down roots in Fergus Falls.
Recent census data shows that Fergus Falls’ population has increased to roughly 13,783 within city limits and more than 43,000 within a 25-mile radius. A thriving business community, including a vibrant downtown shopping and dining district, accounts for an additional 27% increase in workforce commuters.
So, how does it all translate to niche businesses like Bermel’s?
A growing population and a strong workforce allow Fergus Falls to maintain and grow a diverse range of businesses. Those that live and work in the community support local establishments by shopping and receiving services in the area. The city also offers business owners affordable options for buying or leasing commercial properties.
Interested in learning more about opening or relocating a niche business to Fergus Falls? Get in touch with our team! We’d be happy to help you navigate the process. Special thanks to Gerald Bermel for sharing his story with us!