2013-11-20 / Features


Joseph Rocco

It’s not uncommon to hear stories about hardworking immigrants and their goal of becoming small business owners and live the American Dream, especially in immigrant-rich communities like Astoria. When the narrative also includes a cast spanning four generations of Italian shoe cobblers, a stage surrounded by machinery, privacy booths, antique fixtures dating from the 1930s, and a formula for success predicated on low prices, exceptional service and a simple notion that “people like old-fashioned”, it’s a story that must be retold.

Meet Joseph Rocco Sr., the 83-year old son of Italian immigrant Vito Rocco who founded Jim’s Shoe Repair in Midtown Manhattan in 1932. Not much has changed inside the shop since it moved in 1940 to its current location on 59th Street, between Madison and Park Avenues.

When you walk into Jim’s, you can imagine what New York City was like during the ‘30s and ‘40s, when money was scarce, and only those businesses truly devoted to customer service survived. During the Great Depression, people did what they could, within a tight budget, to be happy—movies and parlor games were popular. People gathered around radios to listen to the Yankees, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “fireside chats” in order to lift their spirits. More so, the masses began recycling their fashions since new clothes and shoes were considered luxuries.

Joseph Rocco in front of his family shoe repair business, “Jim’s”, circa the 1980s. Rocco continues his immigrant father, Vito’s legacy as the city’s premier “Shoe Shine Man”. Joseph Rocco in front of his family shoe repair business, “Jim’s”, circa the 1980s. Rocco continues his immigrant father, Vito’s legacy as the city’s premier “Shoe Shine Man”. By 1943, at the height of World War II, the United States began rationing various items, including leather shoes; by 1944, the ration was only two pairs of leather shoes per person. To make do with less, people took good care of footwear they already owned, and experienced cobblers, like Vito Rocco, important to their communities. To illustrate, in a 1949 New York Daily News article entitled, “Shoe Shine Man”, written by the legendary Ed Sullivan (a loyal Jim’s customer), Rocco’s immigrant success story was on display. The Roccos were described as “the kind of people you find [behind the facade of buildings on East 59th] who own a slice of this country of ours because of years of decent work, their sacrifices and their loyalty to our form of government expressed on World War II battlefields.”

The privacy booths, for while-you-wait service. The privacy booths, for while-you-wait service. Joseph Rocco Sr., who inherited the family business, along with his two brothers, Giulio and John, after Vito Rocco’s untimely death in 1964, continues to operate Jim’s with the same fervor and loyalty towards his customers that his father displayed. Recently, we sat down with Joseph Sr. for an interview about the Rocco family business.

The original antique cash register at Jim’s. The original antique cash register at Jim’s. Barsamian: No one in the Rocco family is named “Jim”. How did the shop get its name?

Rocco: My father, Vito, founded the shop in the 1930s after immigrating to the United States from Accettura, Italy. He chose the name “Jim’s” as a trade name because he believed that an American sounding name would be better for business. During that time, there was a lot of bigotry aimed at Italians who were immigrating to this country in great numbers. The nickname stuck, and through the years, as the business was run by my brothers and myself, we each earned the nickname “Jim” from our customers. I guess my son, who quit his accountant job to join the family business, will also go by Jim when I finally retire.

NB: You mentioned that both your brothers and your son have been a part of Jim’s. How many other Roccos are in the business?

JR: My oldest brother, Giulio, was the first Rocco after my father to take over the family business. After he passed away, my brother John and I took over. I am the only living son of Vito, but John’s wife, Ellie, still helps out in the shop in memory of her late husband. My son now manages the shop’s finances and he is training his own son to do repairs. Right now, we have had four generations of Roccos working at Jim’s.

NB: What has been the secret to your business’ success?

JR: It’s simple—quality service at low prices. Most of our customers are regulars, many who have been coming to Jim’s for a few decades. When my father opened the shop, he wanted it to be the kind of place where everyone could get toprate service, not just the wealthy Park Avenue executives. To do that, he worked hard and kept the prices low. He wanted to be sure that the secretaries and janitors in the building could come to get their shoes shined. Eighty years later, I run the business the same way. I am sensitive that these are tough economic times for everyone. Our shines still only cost $4.

NB: Not much has changed inside the shop through the years. How have shoes and the equipment used to repair them changed over the years?

JR: The shop has stayed pretty much the same since we moved to this location in 1940. We keep the shop’s original cash register from the ‘30s right at the front, and have preserved the privacy booths where the women used to sit and put their lipstick on and hide their feet while they waited for their heels to be repaired.

Many of my customers, especially the ladies who come in for a quick repair, still use them.

The same equipment has been used to repair shoes for more than 60 years. As for the shoes, many of the styles have been recycled through the years. But the biggest difference is in the quality. Back then, most of the shoes I repaired were handmade and stitched, while today they are machine made and glued together. People don’t invest as much in their shoes anymore. Today, people seem to prefer to pay less and replace their shoes every year or two instead of investing in a few, quality pairs.

NB: There’s the old saying, “The cobbler’s children go unshod.” Have you ever gotten in trouble for not repairing a family member’s shoes?

JR: Since this has always been a family business, with many Roccos working behind the register, I don’t think I could have ever gotten away with that.

NB: Do you get more men’s or women’s shoes to repair?

JR: By far, the most repairs are for women’s shoes and heels.

NB: Where did you learn the shoe cobbling trade?

JR: I started working at the shop when I was 10 years old. I was an apprentice to my father, who learned how to repair shoes in Italy. Every couple of weeks, my dad would teach me a new skill and how to use each machine. Then, I would work very hard in the back workshop to perfect each skill. That’s what’s so unique about this trade—you can only learn it through working at a shop like Jim’s and being trained by an experienced cobbler. No college or trade school can teach you this business. You have to live it.

NB: Why did you choose to live (and stay) in Astoria?

JR: Astoria has always been my home. The neighborhood is so diverse, lively and close to Manhattan, and I have made so many friends, that I would never dream of leaving. The community also represents what is best in America—a neighborhood of hardworking, family-oriented people who strive to achieve the American dream.

NB: In New York, many shoe stores are priced out of the market and closed. Where do you see the future of the shoe repair business?

JR: The truth is that we work harder than the old days but make less money. I think that this trend will continue for us and for the remaining cobblers in the city. We are lucky to have a lot of regular customers, but that number is down and we make less money because of the slow economy and sky-high rents. Our lease is up next year and finding space around the neighborhood is very hard, since I want to keep my prices low, but can’t afford to pay for my expenses or pay my people if landlords want $500 a square foot. If you are a good cobbler, you can always find good, loyal customers. The challenge is finding an affordable space in this neighborhood to service them.

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