RIVERBANK -- A.J. Meyers is a master of dying trades. He's a cobbler, leather worker, silversmith and saddle maker. The 78-year-old has spent a lifetime doing what he loves and watching the need for it fade away.
"It's really hard right now to make a living because everything is made throwaway," he said, ripping the heel from a cowboy boot tipped upside down on a metal last, a foot mold around which shoes are made and repaired.
He said he doesn't know what will happen to the piles of wooden and metal lasts in a hidden corner of his business, Meyers Shoe Shop and Saddlery in Riverbank, when he's no longer around.
Meyers' granddaughter and newest apprentice, Josi Appling, 15, figures she'll have to teach herself to use them because her grandfather refuses.
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"He's teaching me everything but shoes," Josi said, hunkered over a table of dyes and a leather strip destined to keep someone's pants up. "He says it's a dying business."
Roughly 20 percent of Americans have their shoes repaired, according to America's Research Group, which surveys customers about their spending habits.
Meyers has taught most of his family the other trades. Combine what his children and grandchildren know and the shop could go on forever, as Josi hopes.
"But he'll probably outlive all of us anyway," she added.
Shoe repair is how Meyers got started. From there, "I just learned what interested me and incorporated it into my business. When I got tired of doing it, I stopped," he said, molding a fresh sole to a boot with the help of a heavy sander that fills the room with a scent that morphs from toast to burnt leather.
That explains the shoe repair, which he learned in two weeks from a cobbler going out of business in Riverbank; leather work, a craft he learned at Oakdale High School; and silversmithing, which he took up after two hours of training by an artisan competing in roping at the annual Oakdale rodeo.
But saddlery happened to him, he explained.
"This fellow brought me a saddle that needed stirrups. I said I'd never done it before, but I'd give it a try. I did, and the guy told everyone to bring their saddles to Riverbank. Pretty soon, I'd done everything on a saddle, so I started building them," he said.
Meyers built his last saddle in 1969. Now, he designs them and has someone else build them.
His designs fill a third of his shop on Santa Fe Street, where he has worked six days a week, 8½ hours a day, since he opened 55 years ago.
Three years after he opened, Meyers moved across the street. So he always has been pretty easy to find. His open door has earned him a lot of friends. Over the course of a day, people of all ages and backgrounds meander in and out of his shop taking in a blend of smells: glue, dyes and leather warmed by the sun radiating through the shop's picture windows.
Meyers said he figures people come by because they like his prices. Josi thinks they like her grandpa.
"Names and money don't matter to him. Everyone is the same in here," she said.
A famous customer
Take the time Steven Spielberg came in. He wanted Meyers, who was ill at the time, to patch a badly beaten leather bag as quickly as possible for a film he was doing in the foothills. It would have taken more work than Meyers was up to, so he said "no."
"He comes in here like everyone is supposed to know him. I said, 'I can't quit my other customers' work ahead of you,' " Meyers said. "I could never cater to upper-end people. That's just not me. Most people that come in here are plain working people like me," he said.
Bob Wood, a cattleman and glass worker from Empire, has been visiting Meyers' shop for 30 years. With his white cowboy hat, handlebar mustache and big belt buckle, he blends in with the shop's figurines and knickknacks.
"If you need something and (Meyers) doesn't have it, he'll make it for you. He's one of the last around. He does good work," said Wood, leaning back on a pair of pliers tucked into a custom-made pouch by Meyers. It's attached to Wood's belt like a gun holster.
"I don't think you're going to hear anything bad about this guy," he added.
Meyers credits the hard times of his youth for who he is today. Growing up with little money around other folks with little money, nothing was disposable.
Over the years, Meyers has welcomed everyone into his shop, from self-described cheats to a Gypsy born in the back of a wagon in the Dakotas, he said.
Meyers made and sold reins and tack with the Gypsy to wholesalers.
"He told me there'd never be a Gypsy that'd try to take me. I don't know why. I guess I'm part of the clan now," Meyers said with a chuckle.
"I don't think I've ever been cheated. I really don't.
"A sailor came in once and put 50 cents on the counter. I said, 'What's this for?' He said he lacked 50 cents one day and I told him to bring it in next time he came. 'That was four years ago' the sailor said."
Meyers smiles widely when talking about his customers, whose names pepper his stories.
Asked what brings them to the shop, his customers say it's the good work of a man who keeps history alive.
And then, in case you haven't been around long enough to know the man behind the work, customers such as Councilman Garrad Marsh add:
"There just aren't many like him."
Bee staff writer Eve Hightower can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2382.