The pungent scent of dye and the whirring sound of a sander fill Lexington Market Shoe Repair, hidden in a back alley of the bustling Friday market scene.
Alex Kofman, the resident cobbler, squints at a pair of black and neon-orange Air Jordans. The thick leather of the shoes is marred with ghastly knife cuts and the laces are draped sadly over the counter like those dried-up worms that litter the sidewalk after a rainstorm.
“Angry girlfriend?” Kofman asks the sneakers’ owner with a knowing smile. The owner gives a regretful nod.
“This is the second time this week somebody’s come in with shoes sliced open from a woman. This one was cut with scissors,” Kofman says, gesturing towards the sneakers.
Kofman has been fixing up the broken down soles of Baltimore residents since he immigrated to America from Kiev, Russia in 1979. In Russia, Kofman apprenticed under his father who has been a shoemaker since the late 1950s—creating shoes from scratch—and is still working to this day.
Kofman describes his life passion as continuing the legacy of his father, but he has pretty big shoes to fill.
He pulls down a dusty framed Baltimore magazine issue that named his father, Boris, "Best Shoe Repair" in 1989 and features a photo of him hunched over a sanding station. The Kofman family follows the made-for-TV narrative of immigrating to America with nothing but a “few hundred dollars and a dream.”
“After two years here, he had more money and spoke better English than most people here. Yup, that’s Boris,” Kofman says. “You know, my mom’s name was Natasha.”
Kofman dropped out of the third grade in Russia due to bullying. “There was a lot of pressure as far as being Jewish was concerned, it was a no-no," he says. After his family moved to America that same year, he says he never experienced that kind of anti-Semitism again.
The shoelaces that line the walls are vibrating with the booming live music the market offers every Friday. The music blurs together with the sound of the sander that Stanley, Kofman's assistant, is using. Kofman is nodding his head to the beat when a customer gives him a thumbs-up after inspecting his newly shined shoes.
“Look good?" Kofman asks the customer, who nods. "Glad I could make you happy."
Most of Kofman's customers are old-timers who have been coming to Lexington Market Shoe Repair for years.
“It’s amazing. People bring in anything from a three-dollar pair of shoes to shoes that are worth $1,500,” he says. “Everybody needs shoes fixed but there’s not that many people learning the trade. Fifteen years ago there were five shops within one block; now you’re lucky to find three in the entire city.”
Kofman recalls healing the heels of clown shoes when the circus was in town.
“You get so many different people,” he says. “White-collar people coming in from miles away to people who are just coming in from the methadone clinic.”
He brings out his phone and shows off pictures of shoes he’s worked on. First is a cherry-red pair of Louboutins that needed the signature red soles repaired. He then swipes to another picture of white Manolo Blahnik shoes with broken heels, followed by some Jimmy Choos. These “Sex in the City" shoes, as he calls them, represent the intermingling of diverse groups of people that the Lexington Market brings together.
Meanwhile, stoic Stanley is measuring up a pair of worn-down loafers with a large shoehorn that looks like the cloven hoof of an oversized wildebeest. Customers continue to squeeze into the shop, most of them clutching shoeboxes to their chests and wincing whenever Stanley switches the heel-removing machine on. The loud growling shakes the rows of keys on the wall and they clang together like out-of-tune wind chimes.
Kofman, of course, is used to all the noise. But not everything about the job is pleasant. He grimaces when he thinks about the shoes that smelled so bad he refused to work on them.