March 12, 2010

To avoid going broke, Mainers are fixing it


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Photo by John Ewing/Staff Photographer... Tuesday, February 3, 2009...Dan Lentz, owner of Roy's Shoe Repair in Portland, has seen his business explode during the past year because people are holding onto their shoes longer during the down economy. Lentz works on resoling a pair of boots at the shop on Tuesday morning.

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Photo by John Ewing/Staff Photographer... Tuesday, February 3, 2009...Vincent Olsen, owner of Cottage Road Service Center in South Portland, began his business as a part-time one, but quit his teaching job and has hired two helpers to keep up with the work load he is receiving. Olsen is removing a starter from a customers car on Tuesday afternoon.

Staff Writer

Dan Lentz knew his shoe repair business, Roy's Shoe Shop, was an endangered species.

The number of Portland shops devoted to sole and heel replacement had dwindled from a dozen 20 years ago to just his shop today.

But a surge in business in recent months has given him hope that he may be around for many more years.

Because of the sour economy, people are thinking twice about buying new. Business is up for cobblers, vacuum repairmen and auto mechanics as consumers try to put off major purchases until the economy improves. Although it may be too soon to declare the demise of the throw-away society, many Maine repair shops report business is good.

Lentz said he first noticed the jump in demand last fall.

''It was over-the-top busy to the point where it was crazy,'' he said.

Handbag repairs are also hot, Lentz said. He has been in the business for almost 24 years since taking over from his father, Steve. He bought the business from original owner George Roy, who opened the shop in 1956.

Dan Lentz said that when he gets extra busy, he has to explain that a repair might take a little longer, but customers don't seem to mind. There is no reason why people shouldn't get eight years of mileage from a well-made shoe, he said.

''It's the shoes that are $100 to $120 and up. Those are the shoes people want to get double time out of,'' Lentz said.

Steve Foss, owner of Shoe String Exchange Shoe Repair in South Portland, said business is up 10 percent to 15 percent in the past year because it costs only $10 to put the heels back on a pair of ladies' pumps, but a lot more to replace them.

''I look at it like this: You take care of your feet, they will take care of you,'' Foss said.

Some auto repair shop owners say they are seeing strong demand from customers hoping to nurse their vehicles through the recession.

Vincent Olsen opened his Cottage Road Service Center in South Portland in March, intending to run it part time. A full-time teacher at Portland Arts and Technology High School, he hoped to pick up some of the clients from a Cape Elizabeth service station that was closing.

''It just blew up. We are overwhelmed with work,'' said Olsen, who has since quit his teaching job and hired three employees.

Olsen said much of the demand is from owners of five- or six-year-old cars facing major repair bills, who normally would trade in at that point.

''In today's economy, they are reconsidering taking on another five years of car payments,'' he said.

Other repair-business owners say people are definitely trying to get more life out of their washers, dryers and home appliances.

Brian DiPietrantonio, owner of Best Vacuum Service in Westbrook, said the increase in his repair business has offset the loss of his sales.

''Customers are trying to keep things running longer,'' said DiPietrantonio, who recently repaired a 40-year-old Filter Queen vacuum by replacing its motor for $100. It would have cost $1,500 to buy a new one.

DiPietrantonio said more rug shampooers and low-end vacuums are coming into the shop lately.

''We are seeing things that a year ago they might not have bothered to fix,'' he said.

The small-engine-repair business also appears to be flourishing. Yerxa's Oil and Power Equipment in Portland has hired more technicians for its service department in the past two years to keep up with demand for lawnmower, snowblower and outdoor power tool repairs.

''In a bad economy, they repair more stuff than they buy,'' said Tim Dicenso, service manager.

After a dismal 2008 for retail sales, the National Retail Federation is predicting a 0.5 percent fall-off in sales revenue this year, the first annual decline in at least three decades. Sales declined 1.7 percent in the last quarter of 2008, according to the group.

But not all repair shops are celebrating the trend. Some watch and clock shops say customers are being selective.

Ken Rice, owner of Tic-N-Time in Windham, said he is replacing a lot of watch batteries, but customers are not as quick to proceed with costly clock repairs.

''It is a two-spouse decision these days,'' he said.

Electronics repair shops say business is tepid. Joseph LeBlond, owner of LeBlond's TV Sales and Service in Biddeford, said he is actually selling more televisions than ever before, thanks in part to the closing of national electronics chain stores such as Circuit City and Tweeter. His repair service has remained about the same.

LeBlond said the prices of high-end televisions have tumbled from a few years ago, making a new television a bargain that many can't resist.

''They are saying, 'Do I spend $75 to $80 on a TV 15 years old, or do I upgrade?' '' he said.

Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at:

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