Featured Maker: Robert Walling, Babu Shoes

Where do your shoes come from?

It’s not a question that most people think about. But for Bob Walling, it’s a question that has defined his career and his outlook on business.

Bob has spent his career working on all aspects of the shoe industry, from manufacturing to wholesale to retail. Along the way, however, he began to sense that “the industrial model didn’t suit the shoe business” in some respects. Almost a decade ago, he sought out a new way to manufacture and sell shoes based on different assumptions about the business: that bigger isn’t always better, that workers could be trained more readily, and that it’s possible to be successful while maintaining local control over both the process and the product.

The result was Babu Shoes, a business that Bob and his son Daniel manage out of a small shop in South Eugene. All of his shoes are made by himself or one of his apprentices. To date, Bob has had 26 people pass through his shop to learn the art of making shoes. It costs nothing to become an apprentice — the only obligation is to produce a few pairs of shoes that can then be sold by Babu. Apprenticeships operate on an “alternative school” model: schedules are very flexible, and can be carried out a few hours at a time over months or years. Generally, an apprentice can be fully trained in about 180 hours, which is much faster than the traditional model of 5-10 years of training! Once trained, some of his apprentices have gone on to operate their own successful shoemaking enterprises.

Operating on a small scale also allows Bob to pursue strong customer relations. Standard industrial shoes come in standard sizes, but artisan-made shoes can be built to more precise specifications. He has reported that customers who previously could never find a proper fit with standard shoes have been “brought to tears” after experiencing the comfort that a pair of custom, handmade shoes can offer.

Bob is very excited to be part of his first Maker Faire experience here in Eugene. He especially wants visitors to see for themselves that shoes aren’t just “mysterious high-tech products that emerge from factories in China.” With just a bit of craft knowledge and practice, anyone can build a shoe! With that same knowledge shared with others, as well as a small capital investment, anyone can operate an independent, local shoe business like Babu.

Although Bob pursues a traditional craft, he shares a great deal in common with the more modern technologies that we most often associate with the Maker movement. Bob operates on a “totally open source” model — every aspect of his craft is in the public domain, and he is always willing to share his knowledge with those willing to learn. We think this makes him a perfect fit for Maker Faire!

You can find more information about Babu online, along with many more photos of his work (which also includes some hats and woodworking projects). And you can meet Bob in person to talk to him about his craft and his business model at the Eugene Mini Maker Faire on June 15th. Buy your advance tickets now, and don’t forget to use the code “early13” before May 31 to save $1 off each ticket!

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