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In downtown Willmar, two holdouts from a bygone era

Customers bring third-generation cobbler Jim Ackerman irreplaceable items, like this cowboy boot brought to him by a truck driver, which he estimates have a value of $400. Tribune photo by Eric Ludy

It's almost like the 21st century never arrived here at the Centre Point Mall in downtown Willmar.

Inside, clock smith Wes Carlson tinkers with the gears of an old mantle clock. The ticking of the dozens of others he has already fixed provides a mechanical rhythm for the slow, absorbing task.

Nearby his friend Jim Ackerman, a third-generation cobbler, examines a pair of cowboy boots in need of some patching up. "This is something you kind of learn as you see it," he says of his trade. Back in '87, he took over from his father, who took over from his father long before that.

In a time of mass produced, disposable goods, the two tradesmen are a dying breed, said Carlson.

That's not to say, though, that business is suffering.

Both men reported a steady, if not booming business, with people driving great distances for the services they provide.

It seems people still have plenty of possessions too special to throw away. What they don't have, though, is people who are still around that know how to fix them.

"Every little town used to have a harness shop, a shoe repair shop, a blacksmith," said Ackerman. Now, he said, "people will come in from 70, 80 miles around to get their shoes fixed."

The cobbler legacy of the Ackerman family began when his grandfather built a harness shop in Cosmos, which later evolved into a shoe repair shop. Ackerman still uses the sewing machine capable of penetrating leather that his grandfather bought -- used -- in 1937.

His parents later moved the shop to Litchfield, and then to its current location in Willmar. Ackerman took over 22 years ago.

For the bulk of his life, he had been working in the abstract worlds of teaching and sales. Remembering his bygone days spent in the shop, helping his parents patch and polish shoes, he always longed to get back to working with his hands. For him, repairing shoes never felt like work.

"I guess I kind of retired when I took over here," he said. "It's very non-stressful."

With people coming from all over with not only shoes, but purses, belts, and other valuables in need of repair, he said he keeps busy. Still, he said, being a cobbler in 2009 is no get-rich-quick scheme.

"This is not a get wealthy program, but I guess I'm about as wealthy as any guy I know when it comes to happiness," he said.

Carlson, too, finds the work to be not all that lucrative, but absorbing and free of stress.

"I guess I'm kind of a tinkerer," he said. "I learned from my grandparents. When they found something old and broken they'd fix it."