Noe Valley Voice October 2002

Pietro Fonda: A Shoemaker Whose Footing is Strong on Outer Church

By Heidi Anderson

After 24 years at the same location on Church Street, shoemaker Pietro Fonda has moved--that is, if you count moving across the street. But his new store has the feel of a fresh start, in a newly created store space that was once part of Omega TV Repair, at 1787 Church Street.

Fonda's shop is freshly painted, boasts a broad wood counter and a large display window, and is three times the size of his old shop. The new space also creates more elbow room for Fonda's business partner, Suzanne George, who has worked as a custom shoe designer alongside Fonda for three years.

Pietro Fonda (who often goes by his equally glamorous name Peter Fonda) has been a quiet part of the Upper Noe neighborhood since the 1960s, when he moved his growing family to Randall Street. In 1978, when the rent on his Fillmore Street shop tripled, his son Fluvio noticed a "For Rent" sign in a small shop window on Church Street near Day, next door to a beauty salon. Fonda immediately packed up and carted his business to 1752 Church Street, calling it, simply, Fonda's Custom Orthopedic Shoes.

Childhood Injury Leads to Career

Fonda, 78, has been working with shoes since he was 13. While growing up in Pirano, a small town in northern Italy (now a part of Slovenia), he suffered a compound fracture in his left ankle. The break healed badly, leaving one leg slightly shorter than the other, making it painful for Fonda to stand.

"My mother decided I needed to learn a trade where I could sit down all day, and so she sent me to the village shoemaker. Well, here I am!" smiles Fonda, gesturing to the well-worn stool he's sitting on.

He emigrated with his wife and children to the U.S. in 1957, when his village came under Communist control.

"The Catholic Association paid to move me and my wife and children and found me a job repairing shoes in New Orleans," Fonda relates. But the six-day-a-week, nine-hour-a-day job was grueling. "I heard the pay was better in San Francisco, so I saved up a hundred and fifty dollars -- fifty for the bus trip, a hundred to live one week, and another fifty for the trip back if I didn't find anything."

Luckily, he found work at Gerlach's Shoe Clinic, where he learned how to make orthopedic shoes. After 10 years at Gerlach's, he struck out on his own.

Fonda has specialized in orthopedic work ever since, and only repairs the shoes he makes himself.

Sandals for a Saint

Fonda made an exception on one occasion, however, on the day in 1995 when Nobel Peace Prize ­ winner Mother Teresa came to San Francisco to visit her Missionaries of Charity at St. Paul's. As a gift to her, Fonda worked through the night to repair her badly worn sandals.

"They were sandals she'd found in a dumpster in Calcutta, India. She had been wearing them for 10 years. I saw evidence of patch jobs done all over the world, and had to remove them all and start over."

Fonda says he loved that job and was asked to save the patches so they could become holy relics. (Mother Teresa, who died in 1997, has been nominated for sainthood in the Catholic Church.)

Now, he spends his time crafting shoes for those who may have missing toes, muscle weakness from polio, numbness from diabetes, or an arthritic or other physical condition that makes commercial shoes impossible to wear.

Fonda charges from $700 to $800 per pair, and that includes everything from measuring the feet to making a mold model to building the shoe. The shoe crafting process involves cutting the top of the shoe from leather and the sole from rubber, and then attaching a thin rubber string called a "welt" to the sole, either by stitching or using special glue. The last step for Fonda is to stitch or glue the leather "upper" to the sole.

"For some shoes, like this hunting boot, I stitch everything and glue, because it will get wet," he says. "But for a dress shoe, maybe I just glue the sole, then stitch the upper on."

Fonda gestures to a small Victorian child's shoe, which appears to have been put together entirely with tiny nails. "Poor children. See what they had to wear then?"

Except for listing his name in the phone book, Fonda does not advertise, but then he doesn't need to. Customers from all over the world have been finding his little shop on Church Street for 24 years.

Keeping a Toehold in Noe Valley

A devout Catholic, Fonda sent all four of his children, Aldo, Fulvio, Massimo, and Angela, to St. Paul's schools during the '60s and '70s. He and his family lived on Randall until 1968, when he bought a home on Silver Avenue, where he and his wife Eleonora still live.

When asked if anything has changed in Noe Valley since the '70s, Fonda doesn't hesitate. "Parking," he says.

To avoid the stress, Fonda bicycles to work at 6 a.m. each day, then pedals home in the early afternoon. "I drove to work today, and now I wish I hadn't," he laughs. "It took so long to park!"

As for the reasons behind his recent move, Fonda says he had an amicable relationship with his former landlord but his lease had been changed to month-to-month and he'd also heard rumors that the building was up for sale. Besides, he and George needed the extra space they saw in the storefront across the street, a few doors down from Café XO.

What Fonda didn't expect, though, was the warm reception he'd receive from his new landlords, Steve Sarabalis and Archie Occhipinti.

"They have been a renter's dream," he says. "They were generous with the conditions of the lease, made sure we got what we needed during the renovations, and they still come in to check on us."

Fonda says the two often stop by midmorning and sit on his couch and chat a bit. "The other day one of them said to me, 'We're happy if you're happy.'"

A Happy Addition to the Business

One of the nicer elements of Fonda's new store is a big picture window, which can be used to display Fonda's work. The window also provides space to show off Suzanne George's custom-designed shoes.

"I design for the hard-to-fit foot," says George, "for people whose feet fall outside Peter's specialty, in girth or size." Her clients are also people who for years have been wearing shoes that were wrong for their feet and now have problems such as hammertoes or bunions.

George has been in the shoe business for 10 years, having received her training at the London School of Fashion.

"I came back to San Francisco and looked up shoemakers and came here to introduce myself to Peter," says George. A few months later, she and Fonda were sharing his tiny space.

These days, Fonda often jokes about George taking over his job, "if I should ever retire." But George demurs, insisting that Fonda has a special gift.

"Peter has a knack for understanding what people will need, right as they walk in the door. He has a way of figuring out how to help anybody."

Fonda, she adds, is also a true artist, who has preserved a tiny piece of Noe Valley in a way that would make his Italian shoemaker mentor proud. George points to a foot carved out of wood, which sits in the window of the new shop.

Then Fonda laughs and tells the story: "This is from the tree that used to be out in front of 1752 Church. It was cracking the sidewalk badly in 1984, and the city came to chop it down. I liked how strong and light the wood was, so I asked for part of the trunk. I made a mold of my left foot out of it, just for fun!"