By Katrina ffiske
It is a sad time for Wilton.
Martin Coombes has decided to step down and retire, ending 104 years of shoes being sold in the town. Many families have bought their footwear at a Coombes shop for more than a century.
The story of the Coombes shop goes back to the time of WW1. Martin’s grandfather lived in Compton Chamberlayne with his wife and 11 children. To save money, he cobbled his children’s shoes. One day, he was approached by the Army, billeted in the area, and asked if he would mend their boots. “Bring them to me,” he said, and hence the Coombes’ shoe empire began.
A few years later, Grandfather Coombes opened a cobblers in Albany House, North Street, Wilton. Martin’s father, Cyril, returned from being a Bevan boy in Wales and worked alongside his father learning how to mend shoes, eventually taking over the business. At the young age of 12, Martin started learning the art of cobbling. In 1975, Cyril set up in Tisbury, Martin opened a shop in the coachworks on North Street, then finally settled in the shop opposite.
“I have always loved mending shoes. Since those early days, I have learned something new every day – how shoes are made and mended changes all the time.” People weren’t Martin’s only customers. “I also used to mend shoes for horses and fix bridles.”
Times have changed in Wilton. Years ago Martin would walk to the Post Office and it would take him almost an hour to get there. “People don’t socialise as much these days, back in those days everybody knew where everyone lived. There were so many shops in Wilton when I first opened but sadly many have been converted to houses. Despite the changes, I still love Wilton and bantering with the locals and customers.
“Up until the 80s, I used to do a credit round. Families would buy their shoes and 50% would be on credit. I would go round weekly and collect the money:, it was both money-collecting and a social round!”
The Amesbury shop was opened 22 years ago. “It is very different trading in Amesbury. It has a younger generation as customers. I also had a lot of passing trade, people would stop off at Amesbury for a break on their way from London, buy shoes, and leave their shoes to be mended to be collected on the way back.
How does he keep up with the fashion? “You get to know your customers. I learnt what shoes people would buy by the clothes they wear. People very rarely change the style of their shoes.”
Alongside running the shoe shop, Martin was also a retained fireman. He had to be available for 120 hours a week. If his alerter went, customers and tradesmen would be sent out of the shop. “I remember one time a tradesman had just laid out all his shoes, my alerter went off and I had to run mid-sale, leaving him with piles of shoes on the doorstep.”
At one point, Martin was the longest serving fireman in England, but that is another story.
Martin still loves selling shoes, “but it was beginning to take over my life,” so he has decided to retire to spend more time with his wife Jackie. They plan to go on well-deserved holidays and enjoy life.
Martin will be much missed by his customers and friends.
Valley News wishes him a very happy retirement.