Paul Abate’s family isn’t sure when the sobriquet “Shoemaker to the Stars” first came into usage, but the title certainly fit.
For more than 50 years, Abate worked at the Novelty Shoe Rebuilders Store at 119 Yonge St., first as an apprentice shoemaker, then as owner of the shop.
The location was perfect for a roster of celebrities such as Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole, Anne Murray (a favourite of Abate), Sophia Loren (a very pleasant, down-to-earth lady) and Julie Andrews (during her run in Camelot). All were performing in Toronto and needed a quick shoe repair or dye job.
Granddaughter, Jeannine Abate Campbell says her grandfather loved “the word of mouth advertisement that celebrities provided to each other.” In part, the success of the business was also due to Abate’s philosophy about customer service, which he explained simply in a 2010 National Post interview.
“There’s a different type of customer downtown. If a person wants it for two o’clock, have it for one … that’s the kind of tempo you have to make. As long as they don’t move the lake, we’ll be busy.”
Torontonians gravitated to the water and to the busy downtown core and Novelty Shoe Rebuilders was at its centre.
Abate died peacefully in his sleep, in Toronto on Oct. 18, 2012. He was 91.
Paul Peter Abate lived and worked on Yonge Street his entire life. His parents were Salvatore and Antonina Abate, both Sicilian immigrants who owned the Midtown Fruit Store at 425 ½ Yonge St. Abate was born on May 22, 1922, above the store and was one of five siblings. All the Abates were expected to work in the fruit store, but he found more lucrative work as a delivery boy at Novelty Shoe Rebuilders when he was 14. As an added incentive, he got to take the delivery bike home.
The store first opened in 1932, and was named Novelty Shoe Rebuilders by owner Peter Di-Stasi and his wife and friends. DiStasi became a significant mentor to the young apprentice, while Abate attended Saint Michael Catholic School in Toronto and later, Central Technical School on Bathurst Street. Abate also managed to take a few courses in electronics at Ryerson University.
On Aug. 24, 1941, he married his childhood sweetheart, Margaret Todich, and was soon providing for an expanding family. The couple had three sons and one daughter. Jeannine Campbell says that, aside from his work at the Novelty Shoe Rebuilders shop, her grandfather worked at other jobs and even spent time selling appliances at the Canadian National Exhibition with Mel Lastman. On several occasions, he used his car as a cab on New Year’s Eve outside the Royal York Hotel or the King Edward Hotel to make some extra money.
But his true fascination was with shoe repair. Campbell maintains: “He has repaired everything from police boots to putting blades on skates for Barbara Scott to repairing ballet shoes for Karen Kain. The work might be simple dye jobs or stretching shoes, replacing heels or adjusting arches. Paul could make shoes longer, wider, glitterize them or even bronze them.”
When Peter DiStasi retired in 1975, Abate formed a partnership with friends Roy McGee and Bobby Axsmith to buy the store as well as the buildings on either side of Novelty Shoe Rebuilders. Twenty years later, McGee retired and Axsmith passed away, so Abate took over sole ownership of the store and the two buildings. Campbell says he had strong feelings about ownership. “Why pay rent when you can own? If [I] had to pay rent, the business would be history.”
Although many of Abate’s customers were well-heeled, Campbell thought her grandfather found the most satisfaction in finding solutions to difficult shoe problems.
“He loved that there was one solution that was unique to everyone. He loved to help and meet people, especially people who needed orthopedic help.” As Abate himself expressed it in an interview: “The most gratifying work I do is orthopedic work. It’s not lucrative work, but it makes you feel good.”
In his 80s, Abate retired unofficially from the shoe business to care for his ailing wife. Today, Novelty Shoe Rebuilders is under the direction of Paul’s son, Philip Abate. The business is still thriving with a new generation of shoemakers who were mentored by the elder Abate.
“Downtown to me is magic, having been born there and lived there all my life, it’s it.”
Paul Peter Abate was predeceased by his wife, Margaret, in 2009 and by his son Peter in 1999. He leaves his children, Paul, Philip and Maryann and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.