Updated: Small Business Focus: Toscana Shoe Repair Saves UWS Soles While Trying to Survive

Elena Torres in her shoe repair shop, named after a “pretty place in Italy.”

By Susanne Beck

Elena Torres has been saving Upper West Side soles since 1998, the year she became a newly minted 30-year-old business owner. To judge from the many cards that decorate Toscana, her small shoe repair shop on Broadway and 85th Street, she has captured more than a few souls during that time too.

“Thank you for staying with us on the UWS!” writes one neighbor in tidy print. Nobel Prize winner James E. Rothman offers his thanks from a photo on the side wall, along with appreciative pictures from famous neighbors and Upper West Side residents Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick. More holiday cards with personalized seasons greeting adorn a small shelf near the register.

The gestures of appreciation are the most visible fruits of years of Elena’s hard work, great service, endless friendly smiles, and determination. But, recently, they have seemed to be no match for the destructive nature of COVID-19. The virus forced a three and a half month shutdown last March – the height of the shoe repair season according to Elena. Today, it continues to threaten Elena’s livelihood and possibly, her dreams for her 17-year-old son to go to a top-notch college.

This past January was dead, Elena explains, even quieter than the nine months before. One day, she had only one customer. Other days weren’t much better. In fact, last month was the worst Elena has experienced since she bought the shop from the previous owners, 23 years ago.

“Drago was the name then,” she recalls.  “I renamed it Toscana since it sounded like that pretty place in Italy.”

Elena learned about shoe repair after emigrating to this country with a friend from Ecuador in 1990 when she was just 22. Her friend’s parents had a shop near Union Square where she built on the basics she had learned back home. Machine stitching was new to her; in Ecuador, all the work was done by hand. “I could stitch simple things,” she says in her gentle Spanish accent. “Bags, shoes, things like that.”

West 85th and Broadway.

Hoping that one day she might have an outlet of her own, Elena moved to a more full-time position at a store on Broadway and 97th – what turned out to be another Drago location. One day, a person stopped by the store and mentioned that the Drago shop down the street was being sold. “It was like a miracle!” Elena gushes all these years later. Her dream seemed to be coming true.

“I was very nervous,” she admits, remembering her decision to become a stand-alone operator. She didn’t have a lot of money – “I pay the owners a little each week from the business” – and she was afraid her youth, her relative inexperience, and language skills might hold her back. But Elena’s fortitude and abundance of warmth and goodwill, her dedication to her customers and attention to detail, made for a quick hit. The business hummed.

Her loyal following enabled her to face the many challenges that came her way, from the financial crash of 2008 to the increasing popularity of casual shoes that were considered less repairable and more replaceable by consumers. Her customer base grew to include the hundreds of names that make up her mailing list of today. Many became cherished friends; some felt like family.

It is clear from the speed with which Elena’s radiant smile fades when the topic turns to COVID that the virus has devastated her, not only financially but emotionally. With tears in her eyes, she shakes her head and whispers “I just don’t know.”

She has tried every avenue she can think of to stay afloat. She applied for and received PPP funds to cover salaries but her check didn’t amount to much. Her payroll costs – for herself and Nicholas, her repairman who works quietly in the back of the store – were minimal to begin with in order to keep costs down. She connected with the city’s Small Business Recovery Program to take advantage of the various support services they offered. And, in a characteristically personal touch, Elena also spent hours writing, copying, and hand addressing hundreds of notes to former customers, accentuating words like “valuable customer”, “neighborhood”, and in capital letters “WITH THANKS,” all to remind people that Toscana is still open. “Please feel free to call me and I will be more than happy to pick up and deliver any work you have to offer,” her note states, along with her cell phone. Elena says she will even negotiate rates from those that are posted on a large chalkboard at the front of the store.

Fortunately, rent has not been an issue. “My landlord has been so, so good to me,” Elena says, clasping her hands to her heart in her familiar gesture of gratitude. He told her to pay what she can, making sure she had enough to live on herself. “But last month, I pay nothing,” she says, tears once again filling her eyes.

Elena also received an unexpected boost from a recent GoFundMe campaign launched spontaneously by devoted customer Cathryn Steck, which raised over $7,000 in just weeks. It was just another sign of how much neighbors and customers treasure Elena’s spirit and service. When asked about the campaign, Elena is speechless as she quickly becomes overwhelmed with emotions. “I am blessed,” is all she says.

Going into almost a year without anything close to income as usual, Elena is clearly worried, though.  Street traffic is still down and with so many people continuing to work from home, there is little need for formal shoes or related repairs. Elena is still hopeful however, sustained by a never ending faith that something good can, and will, come from bad. “I am here thanks to the ladies who love to dress up,” she says with a smile. Hopefully her neighbors will feel so inclined, especially as the weather warms – and the men of the Upper West Side will join in too.

Update: By popular demand, the GoFundMe for Toscana has been reopened. You can find it here.

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West Side Rag has been profiling small businesses, which are disappearing from the neighborhood at an alarming rate. To read more in this series, click here.

COLUMNS, NEWS | 24 comments | permalink
    1. LL says:

      If the gofundme is still open, can you post a link? I pass by there a lot, but, alas, my shoes are very very replaceable. I’d love to contribute though. Also, wow, I remember Drago shoe repair.

    2. Ksdnyc says:

      85-86 and Broadway?

    3. Carol says:

      Love this store!! I have not been in City for sometime
      But when I am there I use this place. Whether it is the right shoelaces, a, leather tear ,new soles. They come
      Through. It is part of what has made the UWS
      Wonderful.

    4. Sara says:

      Two comments: 1) She’s honest as they come: She told me in the kindest possible way that it would be cheaper to buy a new pair of shoes than it would be to fix them. 2) She has been selling beautiful handmade masks, and for people who don’t have need of shoe repairs, this is a great way to support the business, too.

    5. good humor says:

      great story!

      Strange….i don’t remember the one on 97th and Broadway despite living there in the 90s.

    6. Bill says:

      I found the GoFundMe page with a quick search online (“Toscans Shoe Repair GoFundMe”), but the organizer has disabled new donations, having met the goal. I hope they will open up again, as I’m sure many WSR readers would like to contribute. Great story!

      • Lois Sloan says:

        The GoFundMe page is open and available! I googled Toscana Shoe Repair Go Fund Me and was able to donate. Hopefully this WSR article will encourage many donations for this lovely lady and her wonderful small business. 🙏

    7. Marci says:

      Toscana does beautiful work, and as another poster said, she’ll let you know when it’s time to let a pair of shoes go. But until then, I get my favorites mended by them, time and again.

    8. Marsha says:

      Elena and Toscana are extraordinary. They have done miracles for me. How do I locate the go fund me? I searched on the GMF website but couldn’t find it.

    9. Madeline Rogers says:

      Elena is a lovely person & her husband is an artist. Every job I have brought them — from a re-soling job that saved my favorite boots to artfully re-lining a bag — has been done to perfection. I’m so glad they are getting the recognition & support they deserve.

    10. Does she sell leather goods, like belts? I could use a good leather belt… because otherwise I just wear sneakers; even my winter boots don’t seem to be made with any leather.

    11. Carmen says:

      We should all help this struggling female business owner💔 I take something there about every six weeks. Last item was a vintage handbag in a pale dusty lavender gray with a torn handle. She spent an extra week locating material in a color exactly matching the bag and constructed a perfect new handle. Amazing. She also sells great polished, insoles, laces, shoe and boot trees and more. Her store is a treasure box, a spa for your special goods in a world of cheap and disposable goods.

    12. Kathy h says:

      She is such a wonderful woman – let’s hope the UWS comes out to support her.

    13. Ann says:

      I went to Toscana a couple of weeks ago and met Elena who is absolutely lovely -we talked of the struggles she is having. We must get the word out to all to bring in your shoes that need repair and get ready for the Spring! They do such high quality work and need our business now. Also – I agree – let’s get the gofundme campaign going again!

    14. DH says:

      Elena once identified a pair of vintage Ferragamo shoes for me that I bought in a thrift store for $8. LOL. I’m not living on the UWS right now but would happily contribute to any fund raiser to help keep Toscana alive and well.

    15. Karen Reisler says:

      Toscana does beautiful work consistently. They not only repair shoes but bags of all kinds. I also have my broken jacket zippers there as well. Elena and her fabulous repair expert do high quality, impeccable work while being extremely kind. Elena picks up and delivers too!
      Elena, please allow your community to add to your GoFundme Page or start a new one so we can all help you. Please, everyone, take this time to repair all of your shows and jacket zippers and bags during this time!! Thank you Toscana for all of your wonderful work.

    16. Leslie Rupert says:

      Toscanna is the best there is. I’ve been going to them for years and wouldn’t think of going anywhere else. She took in a pair of high boots for me. I’m very small and high boots are always huge in the calf. She was able to alter them to fit perfectly. I encourage everyone to use them for shoe repair.

    17. Newcavendish says:

      I have used this shop for a couple of years and can attest that they do a very good job with cheerful courtesy.