Every now and then you meet someone who stops you dead in your
tracks with their vision for what they are doing.
In a time of growing concern over knife crime, I knew that it was a question that could be instantly misunderstood, but I asked it anyway, ‘Do you sharpen knives?’ I asked my question in an ironmonger’s stall in the Kirkgate Centre in Shipley. The elderly store owner shrugged her shoulders, but then her face lit up and she said, ‘You could try the young man who has just set up in the town square. He’s really something special! He’s a cobbler and he’s just won a national award for repairing shoes. He might sharpen your knife! Anyway, you need to meet this young man, he’s the future for this market.’
Armed with this exciting endorsement, I headed off to find this entrepreneur. I found my way to what used to be the public toilets in the centre of the marketplace. The ‘ladies’ had been turned into a trendy nail bar and the ‘gentleman’s’ was now the cobblers I was seeking. I entered the tiny shop and stepped into the middle in one easy stride. Opposite me, absorbed in trimming the heel of a shoe he was repairing stood Dean Westmorland. Finishing his task, he looked up, his eyes smiling a welcome. ‘
So I heard you won a national competition ‘ I said, by way of an opener. His eyes lit up and he lay the shoe down. ‘When I make some money I am going to get a big sign up outside and let people know that I am here.’ Every now and then you meet someone who stops you dead in your tracks with their vision for what they are doing. I sensed I was in the presence of such a person.
I showed him my favourite kitchen knife that I had not been able to sharpen and asked if he could help. After admitting that he did not sharpen knives, he eagerly suggested, ‘but I’ll have a go! How sharp do you want the knife?’ he asked. ‘Sharp enough to slice tomatoes finely’, I replied.
I have been back to Dean’s little shop two or three times now. He sharpened my awkward knife, made a great job of heeling my favourite brogues and I am thinking of using him to repair my favourite travelling bag. Each time, I have been struck by his remarkable sense of endeavour and enterprise, so much so that I found myself asking all sorts of possibly inappropriate personal questions that would help me understand why a young man of thirty, sets himself on becoming as excellent as he could be at the much forsaken art of repairing shoes.
As we talked, I sensed that his life had not been an easy one and that he had experienced a few bumps along the way. He explained that his mum had worked hard to bring him up along with his two other brothers and a sister. He shared an early awakening of a passion for repairing shoes, ‘I loved football … I remember being told by my Mum the basics of polishing and would relish cleaning my boots after a game.’
‘I loved school generally though never felt like I really fit in with any group. A dreamer I guess, good imagination, little focus. I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I left. I never had a careers interview and left with one C in maths.’
‘I started learning guitar before leaving school and decided I was to be a rockstar! This path would be funded over the next ten or so years through various jobs including working at Wickes. I remember my first wages were spent on shoes from Clark’s. I then had a job as a shoe fitter at JJB sports. I have also worked as a postman, a builder’s labourer and a barman’
‘I started cobbling by applying for a vacancy at Timpson while working as a frustrated barman. The passion for my trade and to become a bespoke shoemaker has grown from being a repairer, I have moved on from repairing shoes as just a job, to something that I obsess about daily.’
Various things have influenced his growth:
‘I was trained by an old school cobbler in his 60’s called David Balderston. He is a sadly no longer with us. We developed a good friendship and he nurtured my curiosity and confidence, we hung out outside of work. I owe a great deal to this man and my first commercially available boot will be named after him.’
‘I want to be ‘ the go to guy’ for shoe repairs; in my area at least. My father is a builder, uncle a blacksmith and they’ve always done well from word of mouth, good work and reputation.’
‘I’ve always been my own harshest critic, but when I saw a national repair competition winning entry in 2014 I thought I was pretty much at that level.’
‘So what my vision? In business it’s quite simple: I’m a shoe lover. I take it seriously that shoes/leather goods are loved by their owners. There’s a moral obligation to do the very best work you can achieve on any given job.’
‘I’m not trying to be the cheapest as this is a race to the bottom where quality must eventually suffer, as well as my reputation. If the business fails for chasing this ideal, then so be it, I will not compromise.’
‘In life it’s likely clear what we all want: financial stability, good work life balance, improvement in my craft and eventually passing those skills on: to my sons, if they show interest, through classes or apprenticeships.
I’ve sacrificed my free time and often family time to study, practice and improve the craft. I spend 3-4 evenings a week, 3-4 hours a night doing some form of shoemaking, repairing, leatherwork, and have done since quitting music. This is the time most people spend watching TV.
University gave me a thirst for learning and knowledge that shoemaking will quench for years to come.
Dean came into school on Friday 19th May and shared his story with our Middle and Upper school students in a special guest assembly.