Veteran campers, as well as those who have never camped in their lives, know this instinctively: It’s not wise to prop your hiking boots at the edge of a campfire for more than a few seconds, whether your feet are in the boots or not.
Obvious? Sure, to most people, but this basic footwear-preservation technique eluded me one chilly evening last April in the Sierra Nevada above Porterville. The night was damp and the conversation distracting, and before I knew it the thick rubber tread on one of my Red Wings had almost completely separated from the leather base. For the rest of the weekend, having forgotten to bring duct tape, I walked around like I was wearing one swim fin, except I could have walked more gracefully with one swim fin.
A normal person, back at more familiar elevations, would have tossed the boots in the trash. I could not bring myself to do this. The boots are 35 years old, the oldest article of clothing I own, except for the Phightin’ Photons softball jersey from my college days, and they fit like a second skin.
I had already racked up repair costs exceeding the boots’ original retail value, maybe two or three times over. What’s one more shoe surgery?
I went to see Felipe Torres. He is not the fastest shoe repair guy in the city, but he does check most every other box on the checklist of important considerations. Torres has a pair of leather-stitching machines that look like they might have come from a 19th-century cobbler’s shop; an easy, frequent, hearty laugh that reveals a single silver tooth, front and center among the white ones; and a story that fits every possible make, model and condition of footwear.
He is also the sole proprietor of the Big Shoe, a Disney-esque architectural oddity on Bakersfield’s Chester Avenue that this year celebrates its 75th birthday.
His shop is so comically unique it is world-famous.
It has a semi-glorious history in commercial advertising, most of which predates his arrival in October 2002.
In 1989, the building was used in a national campaign promoting DuPont carpeting, and it has turned up in U.S. News & World Report, Time, Newsweek, Fortune, People, Smithsonian magazine, Architectural Digest, The Wall Street Journal and USA Today, among other publications. It's been on broadcast networks and in books about unusual buildings.
It might be the most photographed structure in Bakersfield. Bemused visitors still walk in off the street, almost weekly, and ask what goes on there, as if the jumble of shoes, boots, belts and handbags — meticulously arranged with the nuanced decorating touch of a cyclone — hasn’t made it obvious.
“You’ve seen the sign, ‘God bless this mess’? This disorganized system I have is very organized,” he says.
The Big Shoe, originally Deschwanden’s Shoe Repair, was built at 10th and Chester in 1947 by Chester Deschwanden and operated by his son Donald Deschwanden for 40 years, until Donald’s death. It was vacant for 10 years, with captive, unclaimed shoes piled against the front windows, about where the big toe would be, until Salomon Olvera purchased the building and — after briefly considering other uses — brought in Torres to run it as a shoe repair shop.
It’s hard to imagine a zapatero, or cobbler, with better credentials. Torres grew up in Leon, Guanajuato, Mexico, which bills itself as the Shoe Capital of the World. “They have a giant shoe there, a real shoe, that they have for shoe conventions,” Torres explains.
As big as the shoe we’re standing in?
“No, not that big. But big.”
He cobbled alongside his father, Tomas Torres, leaving school after the sixth grade to work in the family business, then brought his craftsmanship to the U.S. in 1990. He became a citizen in 2019.
His business is a safe refuge from today’s volatile political winds, Torres claims, pointing out that the Big Shoe is neither a right shoe nor a left. “Go ahead, try to tell. Can you tell? No, you can’t,” he says.
The Big Shoe is a cozy 370 square feet, 25 feet tall at its peak and 32 feet long — making it roughly a size 768 — and it rests on a black sole over a reddish base. Three-inch-thick ropes, painted black, serve as its shoelaces.
The Big Shoe has itself needed repairs over the years. It needed a new coat of polish after someone added an unauthorized Nike “swoosh,” and more serious work after a driver veered off Chester Avenue and took a gouge out of its side.
“That (building) is gonna be the only shoe in my life, probably in my experience, that I cannot fix,” he says.
Given that boast, I felt confident Torres might be able to salvage my hiking boots, but he rolled his eyes as he inspected the damage. “Esto no se ve bien,” he said. “What happened here? Fire?”
“It’s melted. I can’t fix melted.”
“I will try.” He would have to order a special glue, he said.
The rest of the story is the stuff of zapatero legend: hiking boots repaired, not to pristine perfection, but close — and certainly to serviceable condition.
Tomas Torres would be proud. Donald Deschwanden would be proud. Walt Disney would be proud.
Robert Price is an Emmy-winning reporter-commentator for KGET-TV. His column appears here Sundays; the views expressed are his own. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter: @stubblebuzz.