On 4th St., An Iconic Sandal Maker

IMG_9361Helen Zhang Now 81, Barbara Shaum has been making sandals at her East Village shop for five decades.

Summer has faded into memory and trips to warm climes are still months off, so having just ended her busiest season, the celebrated sandal maker Barbara Shaum can take some time to sit and chat.

At age 81, Ms. Shaum, who seems to call everyone “darling,” has been fashioning custom-made leather sandals for the last 50 years in her store at 60 East Fourth Street. She arrived in New York in 1951 from a small town in central Pennsylvania with a dollar in her pocket and not a clue of what she wanted to do, except that she wanted to work with her hands.

“I’m a craftsman. I like to produce,” she said one recent afternoon, sitting at her worktable, piled with cardboard cutouts of feet and a heavy bowl filled with brass nails and an old pair of pliers.

Three years after her arrival, she opened a leather goods shop in the East Village and began catching the attention of young designers who would later become pillars of the fashion industry: Donna Karan, Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren. Featured in runway shows by Diesel and national magazines spreads, the hand-crafted footwear sells for upwards of $600.

She gained a following purely “because of the quality,” said Kika Vliegenthart, a former apprentice and now full-time employee of Ms. Shaum’s.

A steady stream of loyal customers has kept Ms. Shaum in business, whether they are coming in for repairs on an old pair of sandals or looking to upgrade. She’s seen her customer base expand beyond the Woodstock-goers of the sixties. “Now even right-wingers wear sandals,” she said with a laugh.

IMG_9382Helen Zhang Ms. Shaum said that she has never considered leaving the East Village. “You know people here, you know your neighbors,” she said.

She also boasts “tons and tons” of celebrity clients whose names she will not divulge – though the blogs have mentioned that she’s sandaled Robert DeNiro.

Despite finding success, she never gave a thought to moving out of her East Village neighborhood. “You know people here, you know your neighbors,” she said. “I just like people. I grew up in a small town.”

The neighbors have been fond of her over the years, too. Ms. Shaum achieved local celebrity in 1970 when she became the first woman invited for a drink at McSorley’s Old Ale House, which used to ban women from entering. Last month, the Cooper Square Committee gave her an award of recognition for staying in business for half a century.

She could have retired long ago but continues to work, driven by the desire to “teach every trick of the trade” to anyone who is interested, whether it’s an F.I.T. intern or Alya Kazakevich, a waitress who learned shoemaking from Ms. Shaum and went on to open her own leather craft store, a.b.k. Custom Leather Craft, in Chinatown.

“I don’t believe in secrets,” she said. “What goes around comes around.”