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Sunday, July 1, 2007

Among the many lost arts

A reader writes:

We grew up, as I've told you, about 25 miles and 15 years apart. I'm the older, more handsome one.

You had a nice bit a couple of months ago about Rubio's shoe repair place in deep downtown. Second, Third, maybe a block south of Burnside. I could lead you there, but I couldn't tell you the address or directions if my life depended upon it.

I liked Rubio's, and a whole lot of my "lawyer wingtips" got repaired there before I hung up my cleats.

So tonight, there I am in the garage / workshop, at the grinder, trying to sharpen scissors (three pair) plus some garden cutters. I made lots of bright, shiny surfaces, but the suckers still don't cut. Obviously, I don't know what I am doing. (Female in residence, looking over my shoulder, laughing loudly, saying "So, what's new?") I can't get an edge on the blades nor any respect.

I remember in the early-to-mid '50s in the Bronx, a fellow coming around with a truck who knocked upon all doors or rang all bells about every three months, yelling out, "Sharpen, sharpen, I fix all your knives and scissors." He parked in the middle of the block, picked up from everybody, and about three hours later returned everything really sharp.

Charged about $ 0.25 or maybe $ 0.50 per edge. A lot, in those days.

Kids loved to watch him work in his truck. A '50s-style delivery van with a big side window. Sparks came off the stone wheels that he used to sharpen stuff, and looked a little like fireworks. The wheels seemed to be powered by a foot treadle and belt works, just like our grandmothers' sewing machines. Not any electric motors.

A funny sort of scorched metal smell hung around the truck.

He had a heck of a memory or a good file system. I never knew of anybody in my extended family, or any neighbors, who didn't get back the same items they sent out.

That's another craft that seems to have just totally died. I think there was a name for those guys -- not "tinkers," which has its own meaning, but some special name.

I miss real shoe makers like Rubio's, with all those special leather smells and dye smells and polish smells. I miss the "fireworks" of the grinder / sharpener guy, too.

Heck, I remember the folks who delivered the milk and bread to my folks' summer house at Greenwood Lake. Ray Dillon was the milkman; can't remember for the life of me the dairy name -- Pompton Lakes Dairy? "Pete" Petersen -- and that was very much an "e" -sen -- was the bakery driver for Dugan's.

Funny stuff one remembers when trying to duplicate what much more skilled folks did 50 years ago with a lot less sophisticated tools.

Comments (16)

Who does knife sharpening these days? I'd be particularly interested in a good service in Northeast Portland somewhere...

George's Cutler downtown used to do good job on knife sharpenig. They closed up about 3 - 4 years ago though.

There is a cutlery store in Washington Square that advertises for knife sharpening No idea is thy are good or not.

No idea about knife sharpening places on the east side.

Your mention of Rubio's prompts me to mention another cobbler.

I'm not sure of the business' name, but it is located in Lloyd Center, second level, near the See's Candy Store.

They do amazing work, have all the old machines, and they stock many, many colors of shoe dye, laces, polish, etc.

As an added plus, they have a couple resident dogs (boxers or pugs?) that are supremely lazy, oblivious to customers, and more intent on snoozing.

Oh, the cobbler does good work, too!

As to your question about knife sharpening, there used to be cutlery stores (downtown) that offered sharpening, but many of them have closed.


Not as personable as the old knife cobbler/tinker/smith/whatever, but a little time with one of these will have your kitchen knives removing your fingertips smoothly and swiftly.

At our place, the safest course is to have one or two knives that are very sharp, and that only the Mrs. gets to use. One other must be semi-sharp, for me, and the rest too dull for anyone to ever consider using.

Speaking of cobblers - hey, oregbear did - I remember reading a decade or so ago about a manufacturer of custom wood and leather clogs. Anyone know anything about this, and if it's still a going concern?

There's a knife store on Hawthorne that opened a few years ago. They sharpen things. Below 34th, south side of the boulevard.

I think you'll find those clogs (made elsewhere, I can't remember just where) for sale in the shoe repair shop on NW 21st between Glisan and Hoyt.

Within the last few years, I've seen a couple vans like the one described in the story around town... hand-driven sharpening, not motorized. I'd really like to know who these mystery craftsmen are. Seriously, I've got thousands of dollars worth of business to throw at these guys. I was just put in charge of ensuring safe knives for kitchen staff and butchers, and any dude with even a whiff of talent would get on-going, steady business from us.

Knowing this, if any of said sharpeners are reading, sharpening my own Henckels knives on the house would be a pretty sweet lil' bribe. Kidding, of course.

some special name

"Scissor grinder."

There's even a song, "The Scissor Grinder Serenade."

When I lived in Madrid a few years back, there was a gent that used to come around on a bicycle and sharpen stuff.

No van though -- he did it all in the open air on a whetstone he had somehow rigged to his bike.

I think there is still a cutlery shop on SW Washington Street beteen Fourth & Fifth Avenues that still sharpens knives.

When I worked as a short order cook at a crappy McPub on Hawthorne in 1990, there was a guy who'd come around to sharpen the knives for $.50 a blade. He did them with oil stones (not a wheel), and did a heck of a job.

When I worked produce at a McNatural store in John's Landing in the '90s, there was a guy who'd come around with a wheel in the back of his van, much like described above. Later, they switched to Nella rental service. Every two weeks, they'd come by and swap out all the knives for sharp ones.

These guys are still around, but they're harder and harder to find. Just another sigh of our disposable consumer society.

I believe some of them also ride around doing scissors for beauty salons.

My grandfather taught me to use a wet stone. My father in law used to be a butcher and he taught me the use of the round file (more for an edge) In my family the older generation talk about how they did everything themselves, even making their own soap. I aspire to that, because, just as the mobile sharpeners have gone, so will other things in the future.

There's a gal who comes around and sharpens the shears and clipper blades at the place I get my hair cut and an old guy comes round and sharpens our kitchen knives where I work.

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