MOUNT PROSPECT, Ill.—When the pandemic forced many people to work from home last spring, business at Al’s Shoe Service in Mount Prospect, outside of Chicago, almost completely dried up overnight.
Owner Larry DeAngelo, who inherited the business from his father, Al DeAngelo, and who has been repairing shoes for almost 50 years, watched as days went by and no customers came in.
“My business died because of COVID. There was nothing here,” DeAngelo said. “I was really questioning what I was going to do now.”
But then his daughters, Alexandria and Angela DeAngelo, had an idea. Why not sell the small handmade crosses he had been making and giving away to people for over 20 years?
They both loved the crosses he made for them and had an instinct that others would too. It could be a way to bring a little money into the shop.
“We don’t want to see this legacy die that he’s carried on in our grandfather’s name for all of these years,” Angela DeAngelo told the Chicago Catholic, the archdiocesan newspaper.
So in April, she shared a post on a neighborhood Facebook page asking people to purchase the crosses to help support her father’s store.
“The next thing we know — I’ve never experienced a viral thing — all of sudden our phones were blowing up with notifications because all of these people were responding,” she said.
Many of the messages talked about how much they loved Larry and wanted to help him. People shared the post and it went all over the country.
“It’s because of him and who he is,” Angela said. “So many people in the community come in, not even to have their shoes fixed. They come in just to see him.”
It started out as just crosses, but the DeAngelos quickly adapted to demand and have branched out into selling key chains, rosaries, chaplets, wraparound and beaded bracelets, and even vegan crosses. It’s now its own business called “The Cobbler Cross,” with its own website for orders — thecobblercross.com.
It’s a true family effort for this trio. Larry DeAngelo makes the crosses and his daughters make other items and handle the orders. Neither daughter knew how to make key chains, rosaries or bracelets before this all started, but with an entrepreneurial spirit, they taught themselves how to do it and have ideas for more products.
Their latest offering is a smaller version of the cross for animals. Named after Larry DeAngelo’s dog, who died in early January and who was a fixture at his shoe repair shop, Doxie’s Cross has a tiny paw print stamped in the center.
All of the materials used to make the crosses were blessed by Deacon Jack Smith.
“I never thought it would be something I would sell,” Larry DeAngelo said of the crosses. “There are people from years ago — I don’t even remember all the people I gave them to — who will say to me, ‘I still have that cross you gave me.'”
Each cross is made from high-grade shoe leather called Super Prime, the strongest leather used for shoe soles, Larry DeAngelo explained.
“We’re taking a sole — S-O-L-E — and I’m transforming it to a S-O-U-L experience,” he said, smiling broadly.
When cross sales took off, the family invested in a computerized machine that cuts the initial crosses out of the shoe sole. The rest is done by hand in an eight-step process. After the cross forms are cut, Larry DeAngelo buffs off the rough edges using his father’s shoe machine. Next, he contours the edges of the cross, and then Alexandria DeAngelo drills a hole through the top and threads a piece of brown wax string through it.
Her father then conditions and dyes the leather cross and buffs it on the machine so it shines. In the last step, Larry DeAngelo uses a leather tool he has had for 40 years and hammers an imprint in the center of the cross, which he calls the “mark of the Holy Spirit.”
It’s labor intensive and a labor of love, all to carry on the legacy of Larry DeAngelo’s father, Al, who founded the shop in Chicago in 1937.
Drafted by the Army in 1942, Al DeAngelo had to close the shop so he could serve in the military. When he returned from the war in 1946, he opened it again, this time in Franklin Park, just outside the city.
DeAngelo, 69, spent many hours in the shop and learned everything he knows about the business from his father.
“I grew up in that store, building model airplanes and watching my father,” he said. “That machine that we make these crosses on was my father’s machine from 1946.”
Al DeAngelo had only a seventh grade education because he had to quit school to take care of his family when his father died before the Depression.
“He never complained,” Larry DeAngelo said. “My father was a man of great practicality. He had a wisdom about him you can’t find in school. He was loved by everyone. This is all a tribute to my parents. I’m the custodian of my father’s legacy.”
Larry DeAngelo moved to the Mount Prospect location 17 years ago and has become a fixture of the community.
The interior design of Al’s Shoe Repair is about shoes, but it’s also about celebrating DeAngelo’s father and his family. Old black-and-white photos adorn the walls, showing the early days of the shoe shop, both Al and Larry’s service photos — Larry served in the Air Force — and photos of his parents from their wedding. Rosaries and holy cards fill the walls and shelves.
In addition to being a cobbler, Larry DeAngelo is a professional flute player. Musical instruments hang on the wall of the shop, and a small sign over the cash register reads, “Live music performed here daily.” He has an amplifier, a keyboard and microphone in the shop and his trusty flute is stored under the glass countertop.
DeAngelo is proud to tell visitors that Chicago Cardinals Joseph L. Bernardin and Francis E. George blessed his flute.
A man prone to telling jokes of his own creation and who has a love for puns, DeAngelo’s spirit is infectious. When people come into the store, he greets them with a boisterous “hello” and frequently offers to play them a song on his flute and sing.
It’s that man Alexandria and Angela DeAngelo want to honor.
“We wanted to honor him the way he has honored our grandfather,” Angela said. “And a cross never goes out of style. Everybody can use a little faith in their lives.”
By Joyce Duriga, editor of the Chicago Catholic, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Chicago.