Updated: Aug 17
One day, a young boy from a small town in Italy dreamed of some things that he would like to have in his life. On the day he started learning how to make shoes from his father, the same day he reunited with his father who had gone to the War in Africa for 11 years, a twelve-year-old Joseph Scarfo decided to be a shoemaker. He hoped to help people by giving them a pair of comfortable shoes.
For the past seventy years, without missing a day, he strives every day to be better than yesterday by fulfilling people’s hope to walk without pain. “We all have freedom to do whatever we want to do, if you love what you do, you do it well,” Joe Scarfo says, smiling as he speaks with a mixture of Italian and New England accents.
Joe Scarfo opened his shop, Scarfo Athletic Shoes with his forever assistant and wife, Maria Scarfo, in the early 1970s in Billerica, Massachusetts. Mrs. Scarfo points to a big old box that is located in the corner of their shop. “We must have more than six, seven thousand people in there,” she says. The box includes all of the papers with information of each customer they have had for the past forty years.
Joe just turned eighty-three and Maria turned eighty-two. They have been going to work and coming back home from their shop that is maybe about 720 sq ft for over forty years. Billerica, where their shop is located, is about 20 miles away from Boston. Billerica is within minutes of Routes 3 and 495, which are pretty busy highways. From Scarfo’s shop, you can hear cars passing by like they will never make pit stops.
The first thing they do in the morning when they get to their shop is put on a radio, mostly WGBH public radio in the morning and some pop music station through the evening. An old-school 17 inch-cube television at the corner of Scarfo’s workshop table make Scarfo’s day every day. He believes the ‘Soap Opera’ is the best thing ever.
The Scarfos have customers from all over the world. All of the thank-you letters and pictures of the customers wearing Scarfo’s shoes hung up in their shop were sent from their customers. It shows how happy they have become with their new shoes. “Dear, Mr. & Mrs. Scarfo. Happiness is a life without pain! Shoes that don’t bump my bunions, thank you so much,” reads a letter from a customer named Marjorie’s in 2018.
Joe Scarfo makes custom shoes mostly for disabled people. Eighty percent of his customers are referred from their doctors. When a new customer arrives at his shop the first step he makes is tracing outlines of the customer’s feet onto pieces of paper. He measures around the ball and instep of each foot. Usually his customers have feet with different heights, widths or shapes. Sometimes he has to make one shoe for one-legged people. Customers are either born with the unique foot or it is because of an accident. Joe Scarfo makes shoes that fit all of them.
A master of sewing machine, Maria makes all of the uppers of the shoes. The customer can select the color, style, even the fabric used in the upper. She usually uses nylon for running shoes. They also have a very high quality nylon mesh for those who want a very cool shoe, and they carry beautiful leather for tennis or leisure shoes.
She spends her day making upper parts of shoes but more importantly, she takes all phone calls and mails all the shoes to everywhere. She must have a good relationship with her mailman. They don’t use a computer. It’s all old-school way of business. Maria is always busy and no wonder why.
Wood foot models are made directly from the tracings and measurements of the customers’ feet, taking into account any special features of the foot such as bunions, fallen arches, short or long toes, etc. Joe has his own design from his experiences of fitting for shoes, but if the customer wants a different design, Joe will make the shoes exactly to the customer’s specifications.
If the customer decides to leave all the choices up to Joe, he will make what he feels is the most durable and beneficial for that person’s feet. They stock every kind of sole that is on the market, but his customers usually prefer his special sole, even when having commercial shoes resoled. This sole has excellent durability, cushioning and traction. It is not available commercially, however, because it requires a great deal of buffing and priming before it can be attached to the shoe.
To eliminate this process, most manufacturers use an outer sole attached to a mid-sole. This construction requires no preparation, making it ideal for commercial use. Use of a mid-sole, however, dictates that the outer sole must be relatively thin to ensure that the shoe is flexible and not too heavy. The liability of this construction, according to Joe, is that it wears out too fast. His sole does not begin to show wear until after 200 to 300 miles of use. As Maria says, “We have enough work and we want people to be really satisfied.”
The only concern that the Scarfos have is that they are getting old and they have not yet found anyone who wants to learn his trade for the same reason he did. Nowadays, he believes that he can only do so much but there are many more people who need help. This is why he neither advertises his shop, nor make custom shoes for normal feet. People who have normal feet can buy shoes in the stores. In fact, no one’s feet are an exact pair so custom shoes can make your life so much easier. However, because there are not many custom shoe makers anymore, Scarfo decided to make shoes for only people who can not find fitted shoes from the stores.
Mr. Scarfo grew up in a small town in Italy called ‘Grotteria.’ The town has a surface area of 37.9 square kilometers and the total population of 3,381, according to the results of the national census. In 1955, he immigrated from his hometown to New England as many people did at that time. Mrs. Scarfo grew up in a same town as Mr. Scarfo and she immigrated to New England a few months after Mr. Scarfo moved.
Joe Scarfo and shoes have a long history of journey. His father was a custom shoemaker and he left for the War in Africa when Joe was eight months old. When Joe reunited with his father when he was twelve, he followed his father around and learned how to make dress shoes. By the age of fourteen, he was able to make his own shoes. When Joe was twenty-one, he left his hometown for the first time to start his first job in Rome, Italy as a shoemaker, and that time he mostly made running shoes. He used to make all of the elder Johnny Kelley’s shoes who was a two time Boston Marathon winner (1934 and 1945) and twice a member of the United States Olympic Team (1936 and 1948).
When Joe immigrated to the United States in 1955, he was in his mid twenties. His first job in America was in a ladies’ shoe manufacturing company in Cambridge, Massachusetts. After a few years, he worked at New Balance Athletic Shoes. After fourteen years, he decided to open his own shop with his wife.
The reason why he stopped working at the company is because of his strong belief in shoemaking. He feels that it does not make sense for American companies to have people design shoes who do not know how to make them. The biggest complaint that the Scarfos hear about commercial shoes is that they do not fit correctly, which supports Joe’s assertion that commercial shoes fit only 10 percent of people. Joe wanted to make shoes that fit people perfectly and for the people who appreciate having shoes fitted for them.
Joe and Maria grew up in the same town. They said they knew each other but they were just friends. Three years after their immigration, they announced plans to get married in their new hometown in Massachusetts. They are the perfect definition of childhood sweethearts with a happy ending. “Life is strange,” Maria said. They have four children, two sons and two daughters, all happily married, and ten grand children, which make a family of 20. It is a big number considering that that is from just two people.
Joe worries that when all of his grandchildren are old enough to have their own custom shoes, he will have to make ten pairs of shoes for them. “Even kids know the differences between readymade shoes and grandfather’s shoes now. They don’t want to wear anything else but Scarfo’s shoes,” Maria says laughing and sighing at the same time. When they started talking about their grandchildren, there were no questions asked. They just carried on and on like the conversation was never going to end.
On their 50th anniversary, they took all of the family on a cruise. Maria said that the cruise was one that did not go anywhere. Twenty people including all the kids running around was not the best idea.
His wooden glasses go well with his round nose and thin lips. His glasses are magically allowing him to become a mysterious man. When you see his worn two hands, you can find years of his everyday life in those winkles. Once they were twelve-year-old boy’s hands, but from the first exciting moment when he completed his first a pair of shoes, he is making shoes today.
Maria always has huge smiles on her face. She is about 5.3 ft tall, average weight with dark brown short wavy hair which makes her look like a comfortable grandmother figure. “We are happy. We already achieved what we wanted to achieve. What more could I ask for?” Joe Scarfo said. Maria carries the conversation on.” We love what we do. We make our own hours and we love our customers. Our customers trust us.”
“My philosophy is,” Joe concludes, “if the shoe I make you doesn’t fit you right, we won’t let you out of here until it does.”