Struggling To Survive, A Shoemaking School Is One Of Chicago’s Odd, Wonderful Spots Threatened By COVID-19 Pandemic

Heidi Stevens
Chicago Tribune

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) In September, Sara McIntosh’s unique shoemaking shop will turn 10. That is if the COVID-19 pandemic doesn’t do it in.


Sara McIntosh made her first pair of shoes in 1974.

Her baby girl (who’s now 47) was starting to walk, and McIntosh wanted to craft a pair of soft-soled shoes to hug and protect her little feet.

McIntosh needed a new pair for herself, too, and making them from the leather of old shoes squared with the sustainable lifestyle she and her partner embraced: They were, at the time, growing their own food and milking a cow for their dairy and living in a log home they built together in Bloomington, Indiana.

Over the next few years, shoemaking became McIntosh’s livelihood. She opened a small shop in Bloomington in 1976 and made shoes there until 1981. She spent the next three decades living and shoemaking all over the country — Minnesota, Wisconsin, Colorado, New Mexico — before settling in Chicago and opening the Chicago School of Shoemaking in 2011.

Her school is an airy, beautiful space inside a Ravenswood Avenue warehouse that attracts the city’s makers and tinkerers and artists and, occasionally, corporate folks looking to immerse themselves in a team-building exercise.

You can make shoes there, of course. You can also make (or purchase premade) leather belts and bags and laptop sleeves. You can purchase a handcrafted pale blue leather visor with Chicago’s signature red stars inset into the bill if that sort of thing suits you.

A lot of people, McIntosh said, have “make a pair of shoes” on their bucket list.

In September, the shop will turn 10. If the COVID-19 pandemic doesn’t do it in.

From March 15 to mid-June, the doors were locked. No classes, no events, no one-on-one lessons. Since reopening in June, McIntosh and her staff of seven have shifted to offering Zoom tutorials and selling at-home shoemaking kits and holding smaller in-person classes. They keep the indoor capacity to fewer than 10 people, and it’s easy to social distance in a 2,000-square-foot warehouse. Masks and face shields have McIntosh and her staff feeling well protected.

Still, the books are sobering.

“We’re bringing in a little less than half of what we did when we’re up and running at full speed,” McIntosh said. “And most of our expenses are still the same — rent, the overhead, the utilities. Staff members, I just couldn’t bear to cut back there. We’ve all been working so hard together to keep going.”

McIntosh and her staff set up a GoFundMe on Monday with a goal of $19,500. By Wednesday evening, it had raised $485.

The Chicago School of Shoemaking is not Macy’s — a flagship store whose closing leaves a gaping hole in Water Tower Place. It’s not Family Video, a four-decade-old chain whose closing marks the end of a VHS-imbued era.

It is a lovely little slice of Chicago where artistry and magic happen. Where the work is methodical. Where the staff turns on music and strangers bond over rivets, and the results — both tangible and intangible — last for decades.

“I think this is a place of respite,” McIntosh said. “It’s important for the spirit of human beings, especially in a city that bombards you with all kinds of input all day, to get into a zone and create something. It’s healing and wonderful. It’s kind of a food for the soul.”

It’s the sort of one-of-a kind spot that makes Chicago the vibrant, weird, colorful, wonderful place it is. It’s the sort of one-of-a-kind spot this pandemic is eating for breakfast.

“It’s an interesting phenomenon,” McIntosh said. “When you’re passion driven, you don’t think about, ‘If this doesn’t work out, I can do something else.’ The thoughts don’t arrive in that way.”

She’s delighted that students have continued to interact with the school. She finds herself enjoying making videos for the school’s site and leading 12-session Zoom classes.

She hopes a day arrives when it’s safe to pack her school with creative-minded strangers. She hopes her school survives to see that day.
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“We’re just tiptoeing ahead,” she said, “ordering a pack of rivets instead of a 10-pack of rivets. Being very careful. We just want to survive and thrive, and we think it’s worth every effort.”
©2021 Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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