One of our city’s oldest businesses cares for the soles of Lakeland

photography by Jordan Weiland

You might not guess from the unassuming storefront in South Lakeland that the history and craftsmanship of McFarland’s Shoe Repair stretch around the world. Here, The Lakelander visits with Jim McFarland to learn about this generationsold family business that has footprints across the globe.

The Lakelander: In just a few short years, McFarland’s Shoe Repair will celebrate its 100th anniversary. Not many businesses can boast longevity like that. What’s the history behind McFarland’s?

Jim McFarland: The business has actually been in the family for several hundred years — it just skipped a couple generations when the family came to this country in the early 1700s. My grandfather started back into it in 1918. My father grew up in the business, and in 1963 Publix actually brought my family to Lakeland from St. Petersburg so they could open a shoe-repair store in the brand-new Searstown Shopping Center. My mom, father, and brother ran that store for 20 years. I grew up in that center watching and learning until we opened our location in the Lakeland South Center in 1981. Around 1986 my father grew ill, and he passed away in 1987. I took it over in 1986, and we’ve been in that location for 34 years now. My family is originally from Scotland where our clan house was turned into a bed and breakfast and is now called the Cobbler House with a cobbler on the front sign. So it’s definitely a very old family business. Unfortunately, I heard somebody just purchased [the house], but I do have pictures that my sister took when she went, and they’re really nice to look at.

TL: Some might be surprised that shoe repair can remain viable when we’re used to disposable things. What do you say?

JM: During the 1920s there were over 120,000 shoe-repair shops in this country. Today there remains about 6,000. Over 95 percent of the shoes in this country are imported now, and less than two percent are made in this country. People still buy high-quality shoes, and there are many more people in this country than 80 years ago, so there’s still plenty of work to do, that’s for sure.

TL: Tell us about some of the awards McFarland’s has received.

JM: In 2002 we won the Shoe Service Institute of America’s World Cup in rebuilding shoes. The competition was first held in 1938, and there are currently fewer than 12 repairers alive in the united States that have it. I’m now a judge for this competition. Repairer contestants craft two pairs of shoes back to a brand-new, out-of-the-box look. It’s then judged with score sheets. People enter from all over the world. It used to be called the Grand Silver Cup, but the Shoe Service Institute of America created a new category this year to attract even more attention. We have also won medals in Germany and the Netherlands, which have some of the best competition in the world of shoe repair. We were the first Americans on record to achieve this recognition; we are proud of that accomplishment! There has been one other since then. Altogether we have won over 20 awards, but those three are our most treasured.

TL: You’ve also worked with movies.

JM: We helped in the production of the latest movie with Dustin Hoffman and Adam Sandler called The Cobbler. We spent 18 months on the project. It’s not a typical Adam Sandler movie and is actually a nice, family movie. We had many family portraits placed in different areas on the set. This so far has been the highlight of the shop’s history. We also have an original stitcher on display from the movie along with the pictures.

TL: What does it mean to McFarland’s to be part of the Lakeland community?

JM: Lakeland is very special. Publix wanted us to come to Lakeland in 1967. My dad had just finished with cancer surgery and was not in the best of health. Publix’s own Joe Blanton and George Jenkins paid for the move as they knew my family could not do it at the time because of medical bills. They gave him a special base rent of $135 a month as long as one of them was alive. Publix honored that until my dad passed in 1987. To this day, all Publix employees get a discount as long as they have ID, or until we know them, because otherwise we would not be in Lakeland. Thanks to Publix, I also work with several clinics on treating certain foot conditions. Lakeland has been very good to us, and we value our customers. We have many customers who have been with us over 40 years.

TL: Do you have a 100th anniversary celebration planned?

JM: Yes, we do. This will be a very special celebration, and we plan to do something for the whole year. Even though we won’t roll all of our prices back 100 years, we will offer something special.

TL: Tell us how to contact McFarland’s and where you are located.

JM: We are located [at 5355 South Florida Avenue] in the same shopping center as the Outback Steakhouse and also at mcfarlandsshoerepair.com. Our phone number is 863.644.6395. You can also find us on Facebook.

TL: Any final thoughts you like to share?

JM: We have many wonderful customers. We will always let you know up front if the repair will be a value. Buying cheap shoes is not the way to go. If you buy a good pair of shoes, they last you many years and are much healthier for your feet.