Going with the Grain
A third-generation leather craftsman walked away from Wall Street for the family shoe-repair business 20 years ago and hasn’t looked back.
By Brett Tomlinson ’99
In more than two decades working for his family’s leather- and shoe-repair business, Tony Rago ’81 has developed a handful of guiding principles. Take pricing, for example: His philosophy comes from his father, Tom Sr., who taught him to do what it takes to keep customers coming back — repeat business is more important than haggling over the cost of one job. For customer service, Rago relies on a loose adaption of the golden rule: “Treat people the way that you would want to be treated if you were on the other side of - the counter.” And in addition to the overarching goals of quality and service, he says, Rago Brothers puts a premium on speed and efficiency. There’s no money to be made from leaving unrepaired orders on the shelf.
But as with any rules, there are exceptions — namely, anything from Rago’s own family. Somewhere in the shop, a favorite pillow awaits a new button, and a couch cushion, splitting at the seam, remains untouched, collecting dust. It’s gotten so bad that Rago’s wife started filling out order tickets for her shoes so they would get processed in the customer queue.
So that old saw about the cobbler’s family having no shoes? Rago lets out a deep laugh. “Yeah, they might,” he says. “They might.”
Adages aside, Rago is far from the shoemaker of yesteryear. Gregarious and energetic, the barrel-chested onetime football player paces through his family’s shop and its surrounding neighborhood in sturdy, well-shined shoes, sharing smiles and gravel-voiced greetings with nearly every person he sees. Rago’s daily routine includes fielding phone calls from around the country through a Bluetooth earpiece while supervising about 55 employees in the three-story Morristown, N.J., headquarters that his business calls home.
In Rago’s youth, he says, the shop seemed dark and uninviting. But today, thanks to a recent renovation, it is bright, ventilated and remarkably calm, given the amount of activity inside. At stations crowded with well-worn metal tools and small jars of polish and preservatives, the staff works with a quiet diligence, repairing shoes and boots in one room and refinishing purses in another. In the basement, a third team packages finished orders in plastic bags and loads them into boxes for shipping.
Tony and his brother, Tom Jr., are the third generation of their family to manage Rago Brothers. On the wall near the counter, a grainy black-and-white photo shows their grandfather and great uncle, two young men from the south of Italy, proudly posing in front of the shop they opened in 1911. In the last century, the shop has moved about 20 paces to the north, and in the last two decades, it has rapidly transformed its mission, developing a specialty in repairing high-end shoes and designer handbags.
Take a pair of Ferragamo shoes or a Christian Dior purse to your local retailer for repairs, and within a few days the item will find its way here. Rago Brothers has exclusive repair contracts with both brands, and a handful of others, along with less formal arrangements with more than 800 individual retailers. Shoe and leather repair has become something of a lost art as shoes have gotten less expensive and more easily replaced, and Rago Brothers aims to hire the best craftsmen available. Using that skilled labor pool and a sophisticated computer tracking system, the company repairs and ships up to 1,500 orders per day, in addition to walk-in jobs for local clients.
To hear Rago tell it, there was no grand plan behind his move into the shoe-repair business. As a kid, he never romanticized the job. He’d seen his dad return home at night, exhausted and sweaty, the thighs of his pants caked in glue.
For the six siblings in Tony Rago’s generation, college was the goal, and college meant a broader range of opportunities. By the time he reached his senior year as an economics major at Bucknell, Rago had chosen finance as his destination. For eight years, he worked as an options trader on Wall Street. But when his company was sold, he found himself out of a job.
With a family history in small businesses, Rago thought about opening one of his own — a hardware store, maybe. In the meantime, he began hanging around the shoe-repair shop with his father and brother. As they worked, Rago watched. Occasionally, he saw little ways to do things better, and he didn’t see much sense in keeping them to himself. The backseat driving started to get on his brother’s nerves. “My father said, ‘Listen, you either come here and work or stay out of here. Stop bugging your brother,’” Rago recalls. It was an easy choice.
At the time, the shop relied entirely on local clients. But that started to change one day when a woman came in with a high-end pocketbook, hoping to have it refurbished. Rago Brothers made the well-worn purse look new again, and a day after picking it up, the woman, who managed a store at the nearby Mall at Short Hills, returned with another pocketbook and a message: If you can come to the mall, about 20 minutes away, we’ll have more orders for you.
Seizing the opportunity, Rago Brothers became the go-to repair outfit for a handful of retailers. As store managers moved to other malls, they carried their loyalty with them, sending handbags and shoes to Morristown from around the country. Tony and Tom Jr. worked late into the night to keep up with the orders and expanded their workforce as the company steadily grew.
By 2004, Rago Brothers had a handful of exclusive deals with designers and a growing list of clients. But everything changed in March of that year, when a catastrophic fire at the shop threatened to shut down the company.
More than six years later, Rago still cannot talk about the fire without getting choked up. As he gathers himself and tells the story, though, it becomes clear that the family’s most trying hour also was its finest. Watching the fire department fight the flames, Tony and Tom Jr. decided almost immediately to open a temporary shop, borrowing an old carriage house behind a doctor’s office nearby.
The next day, scores of people in Morristown helped the Rago brothers get back to work. Family members, friends and customers started building shelves and counters, tiling the floor, painting the walls and wiring the building for computers. Neighboring businesses and clients from the mall sent food for the volunteers. A local man loaned sewing machines, unprompted. Even the local government pitched in, providing speedy approval for permits. It was, in the words one member of the local board of freeholders, the New Jersey equivalent of an Amish barn-raising.
“We had nothing,” Rago says. “We watched the building burn down that morning, and with the help of everyone, we opened up next door 36 hours later. It was incredible.” Two years later, the company returned to its former location in a refurbished and redesigned shop.
For a man surrounded by shoes and accessories that retail for thousands of dollars, Rago maintains a distinctly working-class measure of success. One of his greatest moments, he says, was seeing his parents react to seeing the company’s new home, which included a small office not far from the counter. “My mom told me, ‘I never thought I’d be able to come down to this shop and sit in an office,’” he says. “That made me so proud.”
Being in the office is part of Rago’s job, but he seems happiest at the counter, working with local customers and immersing himself in the tiniest details, like dissecting the best way to take an inch out of a snakeskin belt without changing the contours of the ends or leaving a visible seam. A craftsman with a knack for solving problems, he revels in some of the strangest requests that have crossed the counter: replacing accordion straps, repairing a leather elephant or re-lining kneepads for a high school basketball player.
A few years ago, one loyal client brought Rago an antique fireplace screen — a bit of a head-scratcher for a leather specialist. But Rago broke it down to its component parts and found a way to make it look new again. He sent the bronze parts to a plating expert in Rhode Island. He asked a cousin to refinish the screen at his auto body shop. When the pieces were ready, his staff reassembled the screen. Just another day at the shop.
“Send it to me,” Rago says with a smile. “People come to Rago’s because they know we can fix anything.”
Brett Tomlinson ’99 is an assistant editor of the Princeton Alumni Weekly and a frequent contributor to Bucknell Magazine.