Grasping the toe of a leather work boot with her left hand, Jill Suiter uses a set of steel pliers to clamp down on the worn rubber sole. She clenches her jaw and pulls back the rubber, freeing the sole from the rest of its shoe. The scent of leather and shoe polish fill Boaz Shoe Repair, cluttered with boots, heels and waxes — tools of an old trade.
Although she has worked in maintenance for years, some would say Jill doesn't belong, playing a role that has been filled by men for hundreds of years. On a day in October, faced with the absence of David Jones Sr., her only co-worker, Jill picked up the pair of boots to completely replace the sole. Usually, that's his job, but not because she doesn't know how to do it.
"The previous owner told me this was man's work," Jill says. "I proved him wrong."
It's a small operation, and Jill is at the heart of it. She has worked at the shop for a little more than a year and takes on whatever task needs doing. She relishes quiet Mondays, when the shop is closed and she can work without interruption. She wears worn jeans and an old T-shirt, with her blonde hair tied back. Her work shoes are a pair of white sneakers, with stains from the polish she uses.
The shop in Paducah is a 45-minute drive from her house in Mayfield. She takes the long way home, letting work fall away. By the time she arrives, she's ready to shift her focus to the stash of baby clothes and toys she has collected for her oldest daughter, Lizzie, 22, who is eight months pregnant. Jill and Lizzie gush over tiny baby shoes and blue blankets. It's a far-cry from the reaction Lizzie expected when she told her mom about the baby, who she'll call Isaiah — a name her mom picked out. Jill will be at her daughter's side when he's born.
"We weren't gonna buy anything before we knew the gender," Lizzie says. "But she was too excited, so she bought outfits and a diaper bag."