Shoemakers, heart and sole

James Eason (front, left) and Gary Clark celebrate the end of more than 40 years together on the factory floor at McKinlays Footwear, in South Dunedin. Photo by Peter McIntosh.James Eason takes one look at me and says: ''You're a 9 - maybe a 9.''

The 65-year-old can look at a person's foot and tell their shoe size with reasonable accuracy.

It is one of the side effects of working at the McKinlays Footwear shoe factory in South Dunedin for nearly 44 years.

He and colleague Gary Clark, who worked there for nearly 43 years, were given an official retirement and farewell lunch at the factory yesterday and both had fun reminiscing about their years together there.

To many colleagues, they were the life and soul of the place.

Mr Eason said he went to the factory as a 21-year-old for a two-week work experience trial and was taught how to operate a ''rounder'' - a machine which cuts excess leather off shoes.

It was a case of ''if the shoe [or the job] fits'', he said.

He had been working on the same machine ever since.

Mr Clark said his job for the past four decades had been stitching the leather for shoes.

He estimated he had made hundreds of thousands of shoes over the years, and said the most unusual was a size 17 pair he made for New Zealand's tallest man.

''I can't remember his name, but I remember they were the biggest pair of shoes I had ever seen. You could sit in one and row it out on the harbour.''

While shoe styles and shapes had changed over the years, they were still made using the same processes, Mr Clark said.

''Some machines have allowed us to automate the process but it's still a very hands-on job.''

Both men said they were looking forward to retirement.

Mr Eason said he was looking forward to walks in the fresh air, going to the movies, travelling and sleeping in.

''I've been standing on my feet in one place for too long.

''It's time to move on.''

Company co-owner Graeme McKinlay said it was sad to see the duo go.

''They've been here since I was in primary school.

''They are good honest people. They never got sick and they always did a good hard day's work.

''They've contributed to the success of this business.''

Mr Eason said the thing he would miss most was the people, and some things about his job would always stay with him - like the smell of leather and glue.

''I don't think I'll ever be able to stop walking up the street looking at other people's shoes.''

The company recently closed its outlet store in George St in the hope of opening an outlet at its Glasgow St factory within the next four weeks.

What good shoes

Thanks fellas. McKinlays makes the best shoes. I have two pair and am about to buy another. Come on Dunedin. Support McKinlays. [Abridged]

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