Robert Atallah is the eleventh generation in a family of shoemakers and repairers. He is proud to carry on the family tradition which goes back to Lebanon. Robert talks about the family history and how his uncle Michel and father Wally came to Australia and first opened a cobbler’s shop in 1956 in Newtown. Seeing the city as ‘the happening place’, they opened a shoe repair shop in Bond Street in 1959 and such was the demand, they opened more shops including buying Brice’s located in Imperial Arcade and Coombs Shoe Repairs. Across the 17 shops they employed 74 staff, many of the shoemakers and repairers were from Italy and Lebanon. Robert talks about the work ethic and the difference between a shoemaker and a shoe repairer.
He also reflected on why the shops were so busy and the impact of changing work patterns on the business, changes in shoe wearing and dynamics of the city. When the corona virus pandemic lock down first occurred in 2020, Robert was three months into buying his cousins shop Coombs and amalgamating Brice and Coombs into his Castlereagh shop. This was the last of the family’s remaining businesses.
It started in Lebanon. I’m the last of 11 generations of shoemakers. which I’m proud to be, but I think it’s an extension of me, and an extension of my family. And it’s the same with my partner. Her father was a wonderful, wonderful shoemaker, and that’s what her family was known for.
Dad’s older brother, Michel, came here in 1948, from a boat. And when he first arrived here, he worked on the railways, and lived in the country with my grandmother’s sister, at the time. Moved back to the city, and Dad came out in 1956, or ’55 and they opened a shop in Newtown. Dad came into the city in ’59, to Bond Street. Well, obviously they thought that that was where the action was, or where there was a lot of people. Yeah, and then they just opened more shops, and more shops, they purchased Brice’s, they purchased Coombs, which were the two big shops. Brice’s used to be in the old Imperial Arcade, before they built Pitt Street Mall. And of course now, we’ve amalgamated the two that are left, Brice’s and Coombs, calling it Brice’s and Coombs, and that’s where I am now.
Well the shoes were all leather. That’s what you did. And ladies got their wedding shoes covered for bridesmaids, they got their satin shoes. Tinted was lot of work.
Remember you had different dynamics in the city. There was arcades and that. Angel Arcade was the only entrance from Pitt Street to Wynyard Station, so people had to walk through that arcade to get to George Street, down that end of town, there’d be 300,000 people would walk through there every day.
How did someone like me get into it, look, I loved my dad. My dad and I were very, very close. And he’d come home from work, and he’d bring scrap leather home, and I’d sit in the garage as a seven, eight-year-old boy, and I’d cut out shapes to make belts with, like figure eights and things like that, and I used to love the smell of leather. And when I left school, that’s what I did.
And I worked in Australia Square, which they got in 1967, when the building opened, even though I was close with my dad, the older tradesmen had more patience with a young sort of 18-year-old, raw 18-year-old, in a way. And they loved me like their own children, which was very special. And that’s how I learnt, from good tradesmen.