Tommy Rhine has been repairing shoes in Denver for more than 40 years. But three months of the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed Rhine’s cobbler shop to the brink of closing.
During his decades-long career, Rhine repaired shoes for Broncos and Nuggets players and doctors and lawyers at Rhine’s Shoe & Boot Repair. But he’s getting worried about keeping his business afloat.
“I mostly deal with downtown business people,” Rhine said. “A lot of those people are not working right now so they don’t need shoes.”
Rhine said it’s been about four months since he’s been able to pay his store’s rent because of the lack of business. He said he’s been applying for small business loans but he hasn’t heard anything back yet.
Tommy Rhine Jr., Rhine’s oldest son, recently put a sign in the window that says ‘Black Owned Business,’ when the downtown protests began in May. The idea was to promote support for the business and to deter people from destroying his store.
Rhine Sr. has not been a part of the Black Lives Matter protests downtown but he said he was more active in the 1960s as a young man. Rhine Sr. said he had to ride in the back of the bus and remembers segregated water fountains. When he moved to Denver in 1970, he said he was often stopped by police.
“I can’t tell you how many times I was profiled…just for being Black,” he said. “They used to call it DWB, driving while Black, and that’s real.”
CPR’s Ryan Warner tweeted about Rhine’s shop Friday. Hours later, Jeff Engelken, a family friend of the Rhines’, noticed how much attention the post was getting. Some of the replies asked about location and how they could help. That’s when Engelken contacted Tommy Rhine Jr. “T.J.” and suggested making a GoFundMe to help his father.
“I know Mr. Rhine is a proud man so I wasn’t sure if it was something he would want to do but it sounded like he wanted to go through with it and it’s been really cool to see the response and the number of people donating,” Engelken said.
As of Sunday afternoon, it had raised nearly $7,000 of its $8,000 goal.
“I feel blessed,” Rhine Sr. said. “I feel really good about it. All of a sudden, people are starting to come together.”
Rhine Sr. said he doesn’t know what else he would do if he ever went out of business.
“I love it,” he said. “It’s creative work, it’s like doing art,” he said.
Julia James, a lifelong Denverite, stumbled on Rhine’s story by chance. A friend of hers posted about Rhine’s story and tagged James to let her know what was going on. After that, she drove down to his shop.
“We need to support our Black-owned businesses,” she said. “And [he’s] the wonderful cobbler, which is a lost art.”
She bought two pairs of shoes from him and asked if it was OK if she shared his story on her Facebook page and started a fundraiser. Rhine agreed and now that fundraiser has also met half of it’s goal of $1,000 so far in one day.