Minas Polychronakis has been repairing the soles and shining the shoes of New Yorkers since 1970 at Minas Shoe Repair. Today he has one big dream, and it is to be back in business at the former location of the twin towers, in the yet-to-be-completed 1 World Trade Center.
Minas Shoe Repair was one of the first tenants of the World Trade Center in 1977. For almost 24 years, Minas' shop was located in the mall at the World Trade Center on the lower concourse, near 2 World Trade. On Sept. 11, 2001, he and his family lost nearly everything when the shop was destroyed.
Lost with Minas Shoe Repair was 14 million square feet of commercial office space in Lower Manhattan. Roughly 750 companies vanished, according to the Alliance for Downtown New York. As a result, 65,000 jobs were relocated. Employment fell 5% from 2001 to 2005. More than 20,000 residents were temporarily without a home, as many small shops and retailers were gone for good.
"There was nobody around. No companies. People were afraid. They [didn't] want to come to work," Minas says, describing the first few years after the attacks. "It was bad."
At the time, he had two other smaller shops in downtown Manhattan, but neither brought in anywhere near the business the WTC store did. For years after losing his shop Minas struggled to make ends meet.
He needed $5,000 a week to break even, but he received only $1,000 a week in government subsidies.
He used his house as collateral, maxed out his credit cards, and bought supplies on credit (offering an IOU instead of credit cards). Minas eventually racked up more than $400,000 in debt.
Minas could have moved uptown after Sept. 11, but he felt an obligation to remain downtown near the trade center site.
"This area was good to me, and I feel I have to stay here," Minas says. "I had a choice after Sept. 11th to move uptown [or] midtown. But I said, 'No, I stay here.'"
In December 2003, Minas opened a new shop at 67 Wall Street, about a half-mile from the trade center site. "And again the same story. There [were] no people. I said, 'No, I am not going to give up.'"
A decade later, business in downtown Manhattan is starting to pick up. Some might even say it's booming.
"Since 2005, the district has added 307 new companies in an economy that has dramatically diversified," says a recent report titled "The State of Lower Manhattan" by the Alliance for Downtown New York. "The count has increased each subsequent year -- even during the recent economic downturn. Today, the district has 8,428 companies, 130 more than were here on September 11, 2001."
Things are also starting to look up for Minas, his shop, and his family.
"We survived, and I am just glad we are back on track after so many years," says Minas's youngest son, also named Minas, who works at the shop during the summer while school is out. "I am also hoping for my dad to someday move back and into the 1 World Trade Center. That's where we belong. That is my father's legacy."
Fortunately for the elder Minas, he is one for making his dreams a reality despite the odds. Born on the island of Crete in 1941, he started making shoes at the age of 12, not because he wanted it to be his future trade, but because he had no other choice. Times were tough for his family, and he did not have the money to get an education. In 1969, he learned that the United States was looking for craftsmen such as shoemakers. That same year he got his visa and moved from Greece, where he had been working, to America.
He arrived in this country with no money. He did not know anyone, and he did not speak English. But he did bring with him another dream: to open his very own shoe repair shop in New York. After working as a dishwasher for a year and saving $1,000, he was able to open his first shop at 18th Street and Ninth Avenue. This shop would change his life. He met his future wife, Maria, at the shop. Minas repeatedly told Maria that her shoes were not ready, so that she would keep coming back to see him. In 1975 they were married.
[ Photos: Images of the 9/11 Memorial at Ground Zero ]
A few years and a few shops later, Minas needed something more. "I slept one night and I [got] up one morning and I said, 'I can't keep going like this. I have to do something better,'" he says. From that point he was determined to open a new store in the World Trade Center. He filled out a rental application with the Port Authority and after a long selection and vetting process, he was granted the right to set up shop on the bottom floor.
On Dec. 12, 1977, Minas Shoe Repair opened and business was immediately booming. He started with two shoemakers and three shoeshiners. On Day 2 he needed double help. On Day 3, he needed even more help.
Over the years he has become an institution in the financial district of downtown Manhattan. "I've sat and chatted with him and watched him kind of work the crowd," says his friend and customer Howard Mash. Mash frequently shares a coffee and cigarette with Minas on the stoop outside the shop. "People know him in the neighborhood. … Everybody loves him."
And his customers come from all over the city and the outer boroughs. "I used to live at the Crest [apartment building] right next door. Now I actually live and work up in midtown," says customer Noah Bogan. "I don't really trust any other shoe repair shops, so I still come back here."
Today Minas has two locations in downtown New York: Minas Shoe Repair at 67 Wall Street and Omega Shoe Repair at 40 Exchange Place. And one day he and his family hope to have another -- located inside the 1 World Trade Center.
Video produced by Stacy Curtin and Peter Gorenstein, shot by Grace Brailsford-Cato, and edited by Marjoe Aguiling and Martin Goetz.
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