90-year-old Cobbler Still Going Strong
What does a 1940’s type shoe repair shop, a fleet of World War Two B-17 Bombers, the Building 19 discount store in Norwood, Arthur Fiedler of Boston Pops fame and Jazz Maffie, the late Brinks bandit, have in common? And the answer is: 90 year-old cobbler Guy Perito, formerly of Sedgwick Street, Jamaica Plain!
Guy Perito was born August 23, 1920 at Ritchie Street in Jackson Square, Roxbury. Jackson Square’s intersection of Centre Street and Columbus Avenue, under the watchtower on Fort Avenue, was then a busy gateway to Roxbury Crossing on Columbus Avenue and a shortcut to Dudley Street via Centre Street. Guy knew the Square and its diverse 1930s small businesses well.
His parents were Valentino of Naples and Grace of Sicily, Italy.
His younger siblings were Johnny, Mary, Rita and Leo. Leo fought at Anzio in World War II and has passed away.
Leaving Ritchie Street the Perito family moved to a three-decker with gaslights and an oil-fired black kitchen stove that heated the flat and cooked their meals at 9 Albert Street, Roxbury. Albert Street ran from Heath to Tremont Street alongside the old raised NYNH&H railroad track bed which was later depressed below grade as part of the aborted Southwest Corridor Project.
Guy went to the Blessed Sacrament grammar school and then on to Boston Trade School where he took the popular Auto Mechanic’s course, graduating in 1939. He then took Machine Shop courses at Wentworth Institute, learning the various machine shop tools and processes. His favorite subjects in school were math, history and of course, shop. Due to his mother’s vigilant oversight of his schoolwork he was a pretty good student and was determined to never bring home an unsatisfactory report card for her signature… and he never did. Guy goes to his Trade School reunions, but notices the attendance is dwindling now. (Not many make their 70th year class reunion!)
His school years’ activities included singing in the Blessed Sacrament choir and many hours in the gym. He was an avid member of the Roxbury Boy’s Club and remembers swimming there and playing table-pool at the younger kids’ tables which featured thick wooden discs instead of ivory balls, played on a bare wood table without felt covering. He also played sandlot football for the “Pirates” and frequently enjoyed the matinees at the famous “spit box” (the Madison Theatre on Centre Street was known by many different names, depending on your neighborhood.)
Guy discovered a love of the drums and played in the Trade School drum and bugle corps as it marched in the annual Boston Schoolboy Parade. He was good enough to earn an audition for the All American Youth Orchestra. The Massachusetts’ auditions were handled at the time by Arthur Fiedler of Boston Pops fame. Guy didn’t make the cut but he certainly enjoyed meeting the famous conductor.
Guy’s father, Valentino, was a skilled shoemaker making hand crafted shoes in a shop in Needham for the affluent professionals in that town. He had learned the trade in Italy and was never out of work, even during the Great Depression. Notwithstanding his relatively secure circumstances, Guy remembers writing to the Boston Post (newspaper) Santa with a list of wanted toys, which he thinks Santa fulfilled. Thanks to Valentino’s skill however, the family weathered the Depression’s worst years in modest comfort.
Valentino commuted to Needham by public transportation until Guy bought his first car, a ‘32 Chevvie for $15 at a Jackson Square gas station. Repairing its broken axle himself, he was able to drive his dad to work much of the time. Guy has been driving since he was 16, and continues driving as he nears his 90th birthday.
Valentino eventually bought the shoe shop in Needham from its owner, Rocco Perrara, with money Guy had saved. Guy then learned the shoe-making and repair business from his father, never dreaming that one day he’d enter the declining field of shoe repair.
Guy’s working life started very young, as was the case for most youngsters in the 30s and 40s. He remembers selling the Daily Record for three cents, or a 100% markup on the penny and half he paid the distributor. In those days the paperboys could ride the El, streetcars and busses free with a Newsboy’s pass to sell papers to the commuters. The second of the two daily editions of the Record, called the “Payoff Edition,” was the more popular because it contained the daily “number” that yielded a 600 to 1 payoff on a bet with the local bookie.
Despite possessing a solid auto mechanic’s training from Boston Trade School, Guy thought he wanted to be a fireman. So, with an uncle’s encouragement, he enrolled in the Firefighter’s course at MIT and he did well in it. However, when the Boston Fireman’s test day came, Guy, upon reaching the front door at Fire Headquarters, decided he didn’t want it after all.
During his growing up years, Guy had developed a love of airplanes and built many models, starting with the simple penny balsa gliders and moving on to the more complex paper covered kit models of the famous World War One Spads, Sopworth Camels, Fokkers and other “double wingers” of that era. The fascination with airplanes grew and was fully realized when he entered the Army Air Force and became a World War Two B-17 bomber mechanic. The B-17 was one of the toughest war planes ever built and Guy loved every moment working on them from 1942-46 in Selma, Alabama. Selma then was just a small southern city, pop. 20,000, and the site of a famous Civil War battle. Twenty years later it was a major battlefield in the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s.
After the war Guy went to work for a series of auto repair shops in the Roxbury, Jamaica Plain and West Roxbury areas. Between automotive jobs he tried machine shop work and he even tried plastering for a while. His uncle Angelo owned the barbershop next to the Jamaica Theatre, above the bowling alleys, where Mayor Curley regularly had his hair cut and Guy considered that line of work also (i.e. barbering, not mayoring.) As the post war boom continued and he was getting steady work, he met Shirley (Tibbetts) of Lowell at the Clarke and White auto dealership on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston where she was working as an assistant to the Service Manager. They were married and in 1953 they moved to a three-decker on Sedgwick Street, directly across from the Jamaica Plain Branch Library. Guy knew Sammy Klass’ shoe repair shop around the corner on South Street. Sammy had a very busy shop because in those days shoes saw several reincarnations before a trip to Ed Hanlon’s for a new pair.
The Peritos had three children and three grandchildren. All of the children have advanced degrees and are working in responsible careers, making their dad very proud. In the mid-fifties Guy and Shirley moved to Needham where they live now.
After nearly 45 years in the automotive world, Guy grew tired of it and decided to try a new career. With his Dad’s training many decades earlier, Guy found a job in a shoe repair shop in Stoughton. He discovered that he liked it very much, especially the customer interaction, as he loves to talk and make new friends. The owner of that shop retired and Guy bought the tools and equipment. In the late eighties, Paul London, the shoe buyer for the Building 19 discount store chain, asked Guy if he’d be interested in opening a shoe repair shop in Building 19¾ on Route 1 in Norwood. Guy agreed and moved his newly acquired equipment in and he has been fixing shoes and meeting new friends there ever since as “Shoe Repair by Gaetano.” (Guy in Italian = Gaetano.) Over the intervening years he’s met the inimitable Jerry Ellis, one of the founders of the Building 19 organization and many other locally prominent people.
Nearing 90 now, Guy has no intention of stopping what he loves to do. His weekly “club” meeting, which he presides over, meets each Saturday in Shoe Repair by Gaetano’s at Building 19¾. The group includes friends from as far back as his Jackson Square days and newer friends he’s met in his Building 19 shop. The diverse group makes for lively and fun talk with much reminiscing and a challenge or two about a date or a place or a long-past event or person of note. The discussions, with frequent interruptions by customers picking up and dropping off shoes, range from the finer points of the 1940s pizza at Napoli Café on Columbus Avenue to where one could get a pint on a Sunday morning to the appropriateness of Jazz Maffie’s (several knew him) 18 year prison sentence at Walpole and just where did that Brinks money really go and what was the name of that restaurant on Broadway in Southie (Amrhreins?)
Guy knew Jazz Maffie and his family very well when the Maffie’s were living at the foot of Parker Hill near Heath Street. He and the others all said Jazz was a very well-liked and friendly fellow.
Some of the weekly “club” attendees are Catherine “Kay” Desimone, Emmet Tynan, John Tighe, Chester Wallace, and Rick Sidorowicz aka Mr. Sid, the former Dedham clothier. The whole scene is like a modern version of the old-time paintings of weathered, pipe smoking oldtimers sitting around the pot-belly stove in a country store, whittling and chewing the fat.
As he looks back, Guy’s fondest memory of Jamaica Plain is the 4th of July festivities at Jamaica Pond. He thinks the computer, television and the cell phone are the major innovations he’s seen in his lifetime and he’s conversant with all three. He attributes his long life and excellent health to a good wife, a healthy diet (with very little meat,) swimming and plenty of walking before he had both hips and a knee replaced. He is encouraged by the fact that some people still want to learn the shoe repair trade and he will be training a new hire very soon.
Guy and Shirley were big fans of the Julia Child and Jacques Pepin cooking duo and they like to cook and bake bread for each other, although more modestly than Julia and Jacques. They’ve slowed their social life down a bit, but being crazy about each other, they enjoy each other’s company and the slower pace is comfortable for them.
Guy Perito is a happy man and he looks forward each day to the challenges, chit-chat and drop-in visitors at Shoe Repair by Gaetano’s.
By Peter O’Brien, April, 2010
[Editor’s note: Guy Perito passed away on June 6, 2014. He was 93. ]