When Paul Cento opened Cento's Shoes at 33 S. Meridian St., L.S. Ayres was across the street, Merchants National Bank & Trust occupied the corner where Borders now stands, and Circle Centre mall wasn't even a gleam in anyone's eye.
Much of downtown has been erased and rebuilt over the last 38 years, but quietly and with almost no notice, Cento's store has remained one of the few constants.
"People don't know," said Paul's son, Tony, standing at the counter and polishing some well-worn shoes till they shined. "You know there's McDonald's out there because you see them everywhere. With shoe repair, there are no billboards. You just don't see it. My dream was always to have commercials and radio ads where you could educate people."
He'd like potential customers to know that, although we live in a throwaway world, shoes can be repaired. From worn soles to scratched leather, the family's business specializes in making old shoes look like new. Cento's does the same with jackets. Cento's employees clean suede, fix broken straps and zippers, and even repair torn leather.
"He's great," said Judy Hoeping, a local real estate agent who's been a Cento's customer about 10 years. "He can do anything. I take bags of shoes there to polish and put heels and soles on and he never falters."
Paul Cento began practicing his craft in Italy. Tony, 38, said his dad made shoes for Pope Pius XII and movie stars Sophia Loren and Gina Lollobrigida. He came to Indianapolis in 1966 and worked a few years for other shoe repair shops before borrowing about $10,000 to go into business himself.
In the late 1970s, Cento again borrowed money—this time against the equity in his house—so he could expand the business and begin selling men's shoes.
Since then, his sons—first Mike, then Tony—joined the operation, but the shop still looks largely the same. There's still a shoeshine bench (though it's $5 a shine, not the 25 cents it was when the business started) and Cento's sells men's hats (actual hats, not baseball caps), hosiery and some clothes, in addition to shoes. Merchandise sales now account for about one-third of Cento's revenue. (One of the lessons the Centos learned over time is: Don't order too much inventory, since you never know what will sell.)
Over the years, they've built up a solid reputation with suppliers and customers alike.
Eric Landwerlen of locally based Landwerlen Leather Co. said his family's business has been supplying leather to Cento's for more than 30 years.
"It's a great business relationship," he said. "And it's always been kind of a neat relationship in that Tony and Mike are second generation in shoe repair and I am fourth generation in this business."
About 25-40 customers walk in to Cento's every day; still more take advantage of conveniences like curbside pickup.
"It's hard to park around here," Tony said.
Three years ago, Cento's also added free pickup and delivery service anywhere in Indianapolis.
It also offer free estimates over the phone. To potential customers, Tony says: "The best thing is, let us pick up a bunch of your stuff. We'll spend 10 minutes on the phone, tell you what things cost, see what you want to do and a week later, it's finished and back to your door."
To other small-business owners, he advises: "Try to communicate well with customers. Let them know what you can and can't do and how long it'll take to get the work done, so they're not disappointed."
Cento's does some advertising in the Yellow Pages and on elevators in downtown buildings, and it also partners with dry cleaners. Mostly, though, the business builds its reputation by word of mouth.
"It's really cool what can be done," Tony said. "But most people have no idea, because they never see it anywhere. But especially nowadays with the economy and everyone's trying to find ways to save money, there's no better thing than to get things fixed. If people just knew ... ."
And if they don't?
"All they have to do is call 632-5710," he said, "and start asking a lot of questions."