Boston — For more than 20 years Robert Henderson helped people plug the holes in their budgets; now he fixes the holes in their shoes.
For 11 of those years Mr. Henderson was a vice-president in the installment loan department at the Central National Bank in Greencastle, Ind. The previous 10 years were spent at the Seaboard Finance Company office there.
But this spring, he gave up the banker's life and traded his three-piece suit for a cobbler's apron. On April 1 he opened the door to start the first day of business at Henderson's Shoe Repair. Since then, he says, ''Business has been super. I haven't regretted it for a minute.''
A lot of people are finding the shoe-repair business ''super'' lately. While many hopeful entrepreneurs look to high-technology products, fancy restaurants, or specialized services for their business ventures, a number of others are turning to the Old World trade of shoe repair.
In the past four years the number of shoe repair shops has increased 25 percent, to over 12,000, the Shoe Service Institute estimates. Part of the reason for the rise, the institute figures, is that prices of new shoes have jumped 83 percent in three years.
So, by catering to people who would rather have new heels and soles than spend $70 and up for a pair of men's shoes, the new breed of cobbler is finding plenty of work underfoot.
He and his colleagues also are finding new ways to practice their trade. Although the traditional downtown shop with rows of footwear on the shelves - where customers can leave their shoes or sit in elevated chairs while they wait in their stocking feet - are still the norm, a number of different kinds of shoe-repair businesses are cropping up.
The fastest-growing change is the pick-up and delivery service. In Hapeville, Ga., a suburb of Atlanta, JoAnne Lawson sold three of her four shoe-repair shops in 1976. At the same time, she also started picking up shoes at dry cleaners, laundromats, and a bookstore in the area. Shoes left at a dry cleaner on Monday morning are picked up (sometimes by Miss Lawson in her BMW), taken to the shop for repair, and returned by noon Wednesday.
In Hollywood, Fla., the Hollywood Shoe Repair pick up shoes from 15 to 20 dry cleaners and a convenience store, says Richard Filippelli, who runs the firm with his brother and uncle.
''There are a few other (shoe repair busnesses) in south Florida that do pick-up,'' Mr. Filippilli said. ''But it's still not too common.''
And in Charlotte, N.C., simple while-you-wait shoe repairs can be made in one of the Mister Minit America shops located in two shopping malls. The two shops, which also duplicate keys and do some engraving, opened just over a week ago, says Mister Minit vice-president William Smith.
The two North Carolina stores are the first expansion into the US for Mister Minit, which was founded in Belgium after World War II by a former US serviceman. The worldwide chain now has some 3,000 small shops in malls and other shopping areas in Europe and elsewhere. The North Carolina stores are expected to be the first step in a US expansion of the chain, Mr. Smith said.
The recent growth in the shoe-repair busines is a reversal of a major decline that began in the 1950s, says Fred Trezise, a vice-president at American Biltrite Inc. in Chelsea, Mass. After World War II, he says, there were over 50, 000 shoe repair shops in the US. Then, the majority of shoe-repair people were primarily from Europe. Today many of these people or their children are still in a large number of the shops. But in many other cases, the craft has not been viewed as ''progressive'' by succeeding generations. This, plus a growing use-it-and-throw-it-away attitude, affected many products, including shoes, and helped put the padlocks on many stores.
Many of those entering the shoe-repair busines today are, like Mr. Henderson, people who have left other careers. In other cases, they have operated shops on a part-time basis or taken training as preparation for a post-retirement career.
Mr. Henderson's training is coming from the former owner/operator of what was the only shoe-repair shop in Greencastle. That person, Henderson says, was unable to run the shop by himself and work at a second job he needed. Now he is Henderson's employee and teacher.
''I worked for other people for so many years,'' Mr. Henderson said, ''I decided it was time I worked for myself. There are about 30,000 people in this county and there was only one shoe-repair shop. . . . I figured there would be plenty of work.''
The Shoe Service Institute estimates the average American owns three pairs of shoes. And while many of those shoes are a type that cannot be easily fixed or are too inexpensive to make repair worthwhile, there are enough of the others, Henderson says, to ''keep me plenty busy.'' Since he opened in April, he said, checking a pad of shoe-repair tickets, ''I've written 1,640 tickets. And that doesn't include the while-you-wait customers.''
''I started out putting on ladies' and men's heels,'' he added. ''But it takes time to learn to do it right. You've got to know what you're doing. If you don't, you can wreck a good pair of shoes. If somebody brings in a pair of $500 cowboy boots, you'd better not mess them up.''