Written by John Faherty
Jan 18, 2013
Alisha Budkie, owner of Smartfish Studio & Sustainable Supply on Main Street in Over-the-Rhine, stitches together one of her footwear creations
Sometimes you need to be busy doing your own thing to notice that the world around you is changing.
Alisha Budkie is a cordwainer. She makes shoes from the ground up. She creates the outer soles, she cuts the fabric and then she bends over her antique Singer sewing machine – which she powers by foot pedal – and begins to stitch it together.
Then Budkie, 27, sells them from her shop on Main Street in Over-the-Rhine. It is difficult work, and requires her full attention. But it was from here where she noticed a shift.
When she started making her shoes four years ago, back before she opened her shop, people would sometimes buy them because they were unique, or because they looked good. And in truth, they are and they do.
Then her peers, other young people, began to appreciate them because they are responsibly made. The raw materials were local and sometimes recycled. The labor was treated fairly, because she was the labor. There was little waste or impact on the environment.
In the last couple of years, however, Budkie has noticed that it is no longer just a small group of people who appreciate how her shoes are constructed.
“Originally, for most people, it was just: ‘That’s a cool shoe,’” Budkie said. “And now all kinds of people are asking about how something was made, and about where the products came from. It’s great to have good answers to those questions.”
Budkie grew up in Fairfield and graduated from Ursuline Academy in 2004. She went to the University of Cincinnati, where she majored in industrial design in the school’s College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning.
One constant through those years for Budkie was running. She likes to be outside and to exercise and have the chance to think. This lead to an appreciation of running shoes. “I love the practicality of them,” Budkie said. “They are designed to do one thing, and they do it well.”
Eventually, Budkie served internships with two major shoe companies. She enjoyed learning about the design, but not the way the shoes are made. In the mass manufacturing of shoes, supplies are purchased for cost considerations only. The labor force is often overseas and underpaid. The process requires waste and shipping costs.
In a moment of consideration, Budkie had an idea common to many people who design and build and create: “I thought, there has to be a better way.”
So for the thesis needed to graduate from DAAP, she designed and built her own shoes. Not running shoes, just regular shoes. Shoes a person would wear around town. She realized almost immediately that she had a lot to learn.
So one day she walked into a shoe repair shop she knew from her youth, Tricounty Shoe Repair on Northland Boulevard in Springdale, where she found Gerry DiManna, an Italian-immigrant cobbler.
“He seemed really excited that somebody wanted to know that much about shoes,” Budkie remembers.
DiManna remembers it somewhat differently. “I thought she was crazy,” he said fairly gruffly, but you could tell he didn’t mean it. At least not too much. “Nobody makes money making shoes.”
She showed him her designs and asked for a better way to make soles.
DiManna said he would teach her everything he knew about shoes and soles and thread and the old ways to make them. “She does it good,” DiManna said.
In 2011, after two years of apprenticeship, she decided she was ready to make her own shoes and to start her own store. She also wanted to sell art supplies because she remembered how hard it was to find good supplies when she was in school. Over-the-Rhine would be near DAAP, the Art Academy of Cincinnati and the School for Creative and Performing Arts.
She would name her business Smartfish Studio and Sustainable Supply. The website is smarterthanagoldfish.com. The name is based on the theory that goldfish are thought to have such small little brains that their memory is only about three seconds long.
Goldfish might take some offense, but Budkie wanted to encourage people to remember that actions have consequences, and that building things in a responsible way is good thinking for business and the environment. “I thought,” she said, “that we can be smarter than a goldfish.”
But first, she needed money, so she used crowd funding, the practice of asking people, many people, for small amounts of money to help start a business.
Contributions ranged from $10 to some in the hundreds. They did it to help, not to buy shares. On a white tile wall, under a sign that reads: “This store would not exist without” are the names of the people who made small donations. The names are written in black permanent maker.
People who made larger donations had bags or shoes named after them. There are “Alex” boat shoes and “Lee” loafers and another pair of shoes called “The Otter.” Budkie is not exactly sure why. “I think they just wanted to name them The Otter.”
Eventually she came up with more than $5,000 and was able to lease a store that had been sitting empty for years at the corner of 13th and Main in Over-the-Rhine.
She sells supplies on one side, with a 20 percent discount for students. Some of the products include good paper, books for notes, and locally made ink and organic cotton thread.
And on the other side is where she makes and sells her shoes. The old black Singer sits against a wall, and people often think it is just for show. They love it when she explains that no, that is what she makes the shoes with.
The cost of the shoes range from $85 for a pair of moccasins to $195 for a pair of lace-ups. Some of the uppers are made from old blankets, others are from the leather she repurposed from an old coat she found at a thrift store.
And they are selling well. “I have finally got the turnaround time down to about two weeks,” Budkie said.
Budkie is making enough money to consider new products. And different types of shoes she wants to design. She was helped, she said, by an Over-the-Rhine Chamber Business First grant this year.
“People are saying they want something that is made well,” Budkie said. “And they like that they are made locally and that the sourcing is good. It matters to people more and more.”
I try to find stories that seem small, but speak to something larger. Reach me at email@example.com.”