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Front & Center: A boot maker from Ukraine to the Valley

Nick’s Handmade Boots production manager Sergy Sherbinin works on the sole of a custom boot in the company’s workshop in Spokane Valley, Tuesday, June 5, 2018. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Nick’s Handmade Boots production manager Sergy Sherbinin works on the sole of a custom boot in the company’s workshop in Spokane Valley, Tuesday, June 5, 2018. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Boots certified by the National Fire Protection Association are tested for flame resistance, seam strength, cut and puncture resistance, radiant protection and cleaning shrinkage.

One thing they’re not tested for is comfort.

For that, Nick’s Handmade Boots at 6510 E. Sprague Ave. relies on customer feedback, of which there is no shortage.

“Easily the best boots I’ve ever owned,” wrote a land surveyor and occasional wildland firefighter. After enduring “the most brutal break-in that you can imagine,” the customer said his boots now “wear like slippers. I’m serious.”

Reported another, “The quality, craftsmanship, durability and, most important of all, comfort of (my steel-toe Contenders) boots are second to none. I’m on my feet for 10-12 hours a day, and at the end of the day the last thing on my mind is taking off my boots.”

Making sure Nick’s boots are both durable and fit properly is the responsibility of production manager Sergy Sherbinin, who has been making footwear for 26 years – 17 of those at Nick’s.

During a recent interview, he discussed China, cellos and why Nick’s changed its name.

S-R: Where did you grow up?

Sherbinin: In Ukraine.

S-R: What part?

Sherbinin: Kharkiv (population 1.4 million).

S-R: What did you do for fun?

Sherbinin: I played football (soccer) and hockey.

S-R: What was your first job?

Sherbinin: When I was 10, I worked at a huge Soviet government facility where they stored all sorts of agricultural products. My job was helping load trucks with wheat and other crops.

S-R: As a teenager, did you have a career in mind?

Sherbinin: The economy was really bad then, but a friend said I could get a job making shoes. So I enrolled in a two-year program offered by a shoe manufacturer. The college was free, but the deal was you had to work two years for the shoe factory after you graduated.

S-R: What was the factory like?

Sherbinin: It was huge – thousands of people. My job was working at a conveyor belt, helping make men’s dress shoes and kids’ boots. Just our line made 2,000 to 3,000 pair of shoes a day.

S-R: Then what?

Sherbinin: After two years I quit, and me and my cousin, who also worked at the factory, opened our own shoe-repair and custom shoemaking business. We made women’s and men’s dress shoes, which we sold for the equivalent of $15 or $20. They weren’t high-end, Italian-quality shoes, but they were good shoes. Later, my brother-in-law and I started a small shoe-manufacturing business. But we weren’t able to compete with shoes coming in from China and Turkey. Their (retail) price was less than the cost of our materials because we were trying to make good-quality leather shoes. So we quit in 2000, when I was 24, and I moved here.

S-R: What was your connection with Spokane?

Sherbinin: My older sister and several uncles and aunts lived here. They invited me and helped me after I arrived.

S-R: What was your initial impression of Spokane?

Sherbinin: It wasn’t as big as the city I came from, but I liked it.

S-R: Did you have any trouble finding work?

Sherbinin: No. My first job was with a company that made fake fireplace wood. After three months they didn’t have any orders, and I got laid off. That was on a Friday, and the next Monday I came to work at Nick’s.

S-R: What was your first job at Nick’s?

Sherbinin: Hand-sewing boots.

S-R: Is that like starting at the bottom?

Sherbinin: There is no bottom or top. I started out hand-sewing because the guy who did it before me quit, and they tried two other people who were no good. I’d already made boots, so it didn’t take me long to remember how to do that particular job. But I’d never worked with such thick leather in Ukraine.

S-R: Then you moved on to other jobs?

Sherbinin: Yes. I was head of the lasting department for a long time.

S-R: Describe “lasting.”

Sherbinin: That’s when you stretch the vamp (upper-front leather of the boot) over the top of the last (the form that gives a boot its shape) and glue and nail it to a leather sole.

S-R: When did you become production manager?

Sherbinin: A year ago.

S-R: How has business been the past 17 years?

Sherbinin: We did well until 2008, when the economy fell. Then we just did OK. Today, we’re very busy.

S-R: Has the production process changed much during that time?

Sherbinin: It’s pretty much the same. A lot of our equipment – hand tools and sewing machines – hasn’t changed in more than 50 years. But we’ve added a few new boot styles.

S-R: Are all of Nick’s boots custom?

Sherbinin: No. Our name used to be Nick’s Custom Boots. Now it’s Nick’s Handmade Boots, because we also make boots in standard sizes that people can walk in and buy. Custom means made for a particular customer, based on their foot and any special requests they have. Lately, we haven’t made any stock boots because we have so many custom orders.

S-R: Is there a busiest time of year?

Sherbinin: From spring until August, because of the wildfire season. May is crazy.

S-R: Besides NFPA-certified firefighting boots, what other footwear do you make for specific jobs?

Sherbinin: Logger boots, lineman boots, dress boots. Quite a range of choices.

S-R: If people don’t live near Spokane, how do they get fit for custom boots?

Sherbinin: We can ship them “try on” boots close to their sizes so they see how they fit. Also, they can download a sheet from our website and trace the outline of their feet on paper. If they have unusual feet, we can build a custom last that matches their shape and keep that for whenever they need a new pair.

S-R: How many people are involved in making a single pair of custom boots?

Sherbinin: Roughly 18 to 20.

S-R: Besides a custom fit, do people have special requests?

Sherbinin: All the time. Some want three or four different colors of leather – even exotic leathers – and maybe an unusual color of stitching. I’ve heard that Japanese dealers buy our boots, add really fancy silver buckles, and sell them to bikers for thousands of dollars.

S-R: Do famous people wear your boots?

Sherbinin: We made a pair for Josh Brolin for the (2017) firefighter movie “Only the Brave.” We built boots for all the actors in that movie, and they wore them shooting the movie.

S-R: “Custom” sounds like the boots should fit right out of the box. But do you have to break them in?

Sherbinin: Always. And if you go somewhere, you should take along your regular shoes so you can take off your custom boots when they start to hurt, which could be in 15 minutes at first.

S-R: What wears out first on work boots?

Sherbinin: The heel cap. We resole our boots for $100, and rebuild them for $200. Some people have the bottoms rebuilt two or three times before the upper leather finally wears out. But if someone works around a lot of chemicals, their boots may be toasted after one year.

S-R: Do custom boots require much maintenance?

Sherbinin: Just applying oil and grease occasionally.

S-R: Your boots are pricier than what people typically pay for footwear. Does Nick’s ever have promotions?

Sherbinin: Yes. For Father’s Day, for instance, we’re offering free socks, laces and grease with the purchase of a $450 gift card.

S-R: What do you like most about your job?

Sherbinin: When people tell us how much they appreciate something we built for them. We sometimes curse the leather we work with because it’s so stubborn. But we know that’s what makes our boots special.

S-R: What do you like least?

Sherbinin: The smell of glue can be annoying. But the owner (Steve Mowe of Seattle) recently purchased a new air filtration system, which will be installed in a few weeks.

S-R: What challenges does the company face?

Sherbinin: Finding people who are good with their hands. This is a physical job. And boot makers don’t earn a lot.

S-R: You’ve excelled at physical labor. Do you have any secret talents that might surprise people?

Sherbinin: (laugh) I studied cello in music school for seven years in Ukraine, but I haven’t played in a long time.

Writer Michael Guilfoil can be contacted at mguilfoil@comcast.net.


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