Leon Koulloukian was only 16 years old when he tried his hand at shoemaking for the first time.
Under the guidance of his father, who was a master of the craft, Koulloukian learned how to construct shoes from scratch in Lebanon. Each lesson, little by little, led the young man to expertly build shoes by hand, with precision.
This treasured life skill passed on from father to son was one that has long set Koulloukian apart in the shoe repair industry.
“Making it in the shoe repair business is very hard,” said Koulloukian, who immigrated to the United States in 1980. “I know everything about leather — I know when it’s real leather, man-made leather, fake leather or plastic leather. Not everyone working in shoe repairs will be able to tell the difference. I even know how many pieces of padding each shoe has. It’s like being a doctor and knowing where the organs go in the body. But the difference between me and other people who do shoe repairs is that they are doctors, and I’m a surgeon.”
Koulloukian’s store, Heel 2 Toe Shoe Repair, took root in the Burbank Town Center, formerly known as the Media City Center, 33 years ago.
A year prior to the mall’s opening in 1991, the shoemaking cobbler secured his lease in an unorthodox fashion — by doing what he was trained to do best. He constructed a pair of tailor-made shoes “from zero.” He recalls creating 4-inch-tall purple heels for the woman in charge of deciding which stores would get a coveted spot in the soon-to-be opened shopping outlet.
When the woman heard Koulloukian was a shoemaker, she requested he make her a custom pair for her feet, which typically required her to buy two pairs, because one foot was one-half an inch larger than the other. When he presented the finished product, she was so pleased that she not only agreed to a lease, but she also let him choose a prime location for his shop.
More than three decades since he laid the foundation for his store in the city he raised his family, Koulloukian said he still finds enjoyment and a sense of pride in providing his services to the community.
Although his business does not include the sale of his handmade shoes, he will always be a shoemaker at heart — a passion that is both sentimental and adds to Koulloukian’s adeptness in his field.
Anytime the shoemaker anticipates a tricky repair, he weighs all the options to determine the right course of action.
“The first thing I do when I get home at the end of the day is start thinking about how I’m going to approach the repair,” he said. “When I find the best solution, I always make it look nice, and I like doing it.”
Most customers, however, don’t even peek at their shoes before leaving with them. Koulloukian said he often tries to offer them a moment to evaluate his handiwork, so he can gauge their level of satisfaction.
“They pay me because I fixed it, but they don’t always look,” he said. “It’s frustrating when I repair all these shoes and then they just put them in their bag and go. I have to stop them and ask, ‘How is it?’ It makes me feel good to know that they liked what I did.
“If you go to another shoe repair shop, they might ruin your shoes and you’ll decide not to go there again. But now your shoes are gone,” he continued. “For me, when I fix shoes, I make the customers happy, because they don’t find anything wrong.”
Koulloukian attributes his work ethic and dedication to watching firsthand the hard work and labor his father poured into his trade. “Everything I know, I learned from my dad,” said Koulloukian, who left school at 18 to help run his father’s shoemaking business, fondly remembers when he and his father would go to work, buy materials such as German and Italian leather, close the shop and come home together every night.
“When I was in my country, we didn’t have machines,” Koulloukian said. “All you needed was muscle. Everything was stitched and pulled by hand. One pair of shoes made by my dad could last up to 10 years, and afterward, his customers would return to him for another.”
Similarly, Koulloukian said he’s had customers come in and say their parents used to bring them to Heel 2 Toe Shoe Repair as children, which is indicative of how the business has grown to become a staple in the community, as well a source of nostalgia.
“Even if I don’t always remember them, they know me,” he said, with a chuckle.
Heel 2 Toe Shoe Repair offers shoe stretching, as well as restoration of leather goods — handbags, briefcases, golf bags, belts — and zippers. The store (numbered 358 in the Burbank Town Center directory) is located at 201 E. Magnolia Blvd.
First published in the March 11 print issue of the Burbank Leader.