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Traveling sole man touches hearts

Cobbler makes house calls for his faithful customers

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By Jenna Russell
Globe Staff / February 25, 2011

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They know him as George, and among his mostly female clientele, he inspires an almost romantic devotion.

George Triantafillidis is a shoe repairman. But he is more than that, especially now, in the bleakness of the ice-encrusted, salt-lashed winter city. To those who see their favorite shoes as talismans, he is a magician — a holy man with blackened fingernails, restoring the soaked and broken soles of February.

And in a twist that has given him a kind of cult status, this Boston cobbler makes house calls, navigating snow-choked streets with nonexistent parking, ducking through security gates and into burnished lobbies, retrieving tired shoes and then bringing them safely back home.

It is the offbeat mission of an easygoing man with impeccable manners, whose answer to everything is “not a problem, ma’am.’’ The son of Greek immigrants who ran a shoe repair shop, he never planned to take his business door-to-door. But now that it’s happened, George, 39, is not one to protest.

“If people want a service,’’ he asks with a shrug, “why not provide it?’’

The story of how Triantafillidis came to roam the city with a hatchback full of shoes begins with family traditions, passed down from father to son, and ends with transformation, of an old-fashioned business reinvented by modern technology.

It is a story of survival, and a perfect marriage, between a city’s ravaged footwear and the hero who can save it.

“I thought, this can’t be real; it sounds too good to be true,’’ said Alexis Bevilacqua, 24, a city event planner who entrusted a beloved pair of hand-dyed, pink-and-purple heels to George’s care last summer after reading about him online. “I called him and he said he would be there in 20 minutes.’’

He was back a few hours later and charged her just $12, after fixing the broken heel and reinforcing the other one.

Like others who reviewed George’s business for the online city guide Yelp, Bevilacqua sounded almost overcome. “OMG OMG OMG OMG!’’ she wrote. Another customer described being “moved’’ by what George did for her, after he picked up her “precious’’ shoes on Christmas Eve, made them good as new, and returned them the same day before her flight out of town.

“Every women [sic] in Boston needs to have this mans [sic] number!’’ she wrote.

The cobbler, who has never paid for advertising, is appreciative but humble. He says he is “astonished’’ people trust him when he doesn’t have a sign or storefront they can see.

“I can only do my best work and try to keep everybody happy, and, for the most part, people are happy,’’ he said.

He began as a boy, shining shoes at his father’s shop in the Prudential Center, where John Triantafillidis fixed shoes for 26 years. His parents wanted him to go to college, so he did, studying architecture at Wentworth, but he gravitated back to the family business.

“His father wanted him to be an architect, but George is George,’’ said Mario Romano, the Prudential Center barber whose shop, Mario’s Men’s Salon, was next to the family’s business. “He does his own thing, and he’s not afraid of work.’’

He took over the shoe repair shop when his father retired in 2001, and ran it until 2007, when he says the landlord asked him to vacate the space. He figured he could fix shoes at home, in the basement — at 91 square feet, the shop wasn’t any bigger — but he had to get the shoes somehow. So he printed business cards with his phone number, handed them out to his regulars, and started offering free pickup and dropoff.

He had a core business of commercial accounts, dry cleaners and local companies that hire him to fix workers’ shoes. But as word spread about his door-to-door service, more and more strangers started calling.

At first George was baffled by the spike in business. An infrequent Internet browser, he had never heard of Yelp. When he learned, by asking new customers, that his business had been reviewed on the website, his first concern was that he would be billed. “I called them up and said, ‘Sorry to bother you, but I don’t want to be liable for charges,’ and they explained that it was free,’’ he said.

Other Boston cobblers garner glowing online reviews, but his house calls make George special.

“I’ve thought about it, but I would probably have to charge $5 for gas,’’ said Galust Khaytyan, who recently took over the respected Jimmy’s Shoe Repair in Cambridge from his father. “I’ve never heard of a shoe repair shop doing that.’’

For some, the exhilaration of hiring George is tinged with guilt. Rachel Pope, 24, who works in public relations, described chasing him out the door one day this month in a failed attempt to tip him, after he charged her $6 for fixing her favorite black boots.

Triantafillidis brings his wife, Debbie, when he makes his rounds, so she can guard the car when he double parks. They leave their two children with his parents, who live two doors down in the South End. He said he has yet to get a ticket or be towed. He tries to plan his routes to conserve gas, and while he has gone as far as Brookline for free, he has charged more distant customers for gas.

On a recent weekday, with late-afternoon sunlight slanting sideways through the streets and KISS-108 playing softly in their black Saturn, they paused at a Harrison Avenue gallery to drop off a bag and pair of boots. Then it was off to Shawmut and Rutland streets, where he circled the block in thick traffic, cellphone in hand, waiting for his client to meet him on the corner.

When the man came into view, jogging down the sidewalk in a long dress coat and scarf, Triantafillidis parked next to a snowbank and popped his rear door. He pulled a shoe from a plastic grocery bag and held it aloft, showing off the brand new sole and heel.

“These look good!’’ the customer exclaimed, propping his checkbook on the car to pay his bill.

Standing in his clients’ doorways, he is ever deferential, but in his tiny workshop, he is not without opinions. Pulling a pair of Chinese Laundry heels from a shoebox, he sighed deeply at their compromised condition. Holding up a pair of black men’s loafers with quarter-sized holes through the soles, he just laughed. But when he came to a pair of high, gray suede boots scarred by rock-hard salt marks, he was unequivocal.

“I would toss them,’’ he said. “Salt cooks meat, and shoes are made out of hide . . . I can make it better, but it won’t be the same.’’

That said, he is not opposed to a challenge, like that presented by the 100-year-old pair of shoes that once belonged to a customer’s grandmother. The restoration of the cracked strap took a week, as he saturated the dried-out leather in mink oil and coaxed it back to life.

He said he charges less than others do because it was engrained in him: “Do your best, and keep it as low as you can, and you’ll never starve.’’

Grinding a 3-inch heel on an ancient machine in a shower of sparks, Triantafillidis spoke Greek with his father, who leaned on his cane in the doorway. The son is quick to say he couldn’t get by without his parents, who own the building where he lives rent-free.

“It’s a dirty job, but you have your quiet, and you’re not cooped up,’’ he said. “I let luck take over and it worked out well.’’

Jenna Russell can be reached at jrussell@globe.com.