Fond memories of ‘Cobbler John’

To look back on the life of John “Cobbler John” Bolen is to see a life filled with an intense love of music and family.

John was a longtime business owner of “Cobbler John’s” shoe repair in Marietta and was president of the Mid-Ohio Valley Blues, Jazz and Folk Music Society, which sponsors blues festivals and competitions in Marietta.

“Cobbler John” passed away shortly after 11 p.m. Tuesday at the age of 66 after a long illness.

Bolen’s wife, Peggy, said John was charismatic and lively.

“He was a truly remarkable person,” Peggy said. “They broke the mold on him.”

Daughters Bonie and Elizabeth have fond memories of their father playing music.

“I would say (my favorite memory is) sitting around the house playing music; (Dad) and Mom would play for hours in the living room,” Elizabeth said, adding that John usually played the guitar or banjo while Peggy would play piano or the dulcimer.

Similarly, Bonie said her favorite memory is “listening to music with dad and listening to him play music.”

John grew up in Bayonne, N.J., and was a self-taught cobbler. He bought the Davis and Davis Shoe Repair shop in Marietta in 1977 and operated it until 2010. Current owner Bill Gossett, 44, said John didn’t change the shop’s name until people started calling him ‘Davis.’

“He said, ‘They ain’t gonna call me no Davis,'” Gossett said. “He named it ‘Cobbler John’s,’ and it stuck.”

Chris Garten, 62, was a friend of John’s. He said they shared a love of music.

“John was a really knowledgeable musician,” he said. “He came from the East Coast and he was a first person witness to a lot of…really big changes that occurred in folk music and blues in the (19)60’s. I only read about Bob Dylan…Cobbler John saw this; he was there. He was absolutely an authoritative voice when it came to folk music and blues.”

Garten said that he enjoyed playing with John.

“It was fun to play with him because he had a style unlike anyone around here played,” he said. “He was an authentic folk stylist and he was very willing to share it. He was a cool guy to be around.”

In fact, Garten said one of his best memories of John is seeing him dressed up at the Blues, Jazz and Folk Music Society events.

“He wouldn’t just come down and be in a T-shirt and tennis shoes; he’d be dressed like Al Capone in a three-piece suit with a feather sticking out of his hat,” he said. “He had his blues clothes all put together….He was quite the vision.”

Gossett said John gave him a chance when nobody else would, hiring him in 1989 when he was 19.

“He was really good to me and gave me the benefit of the doubt,” Gossett said.

He added that John had an unrivaled zest for life.

“He enjoyed life and I’m glad I got to be there and be a part of this,” he said.

Garten added that John had a huge influence on anyone he came across.

“He had as big of an influence on the people of his generation as any civic figure or politician around here,” he said. “He was one of a kind and I’m sure I’ll never meet another like him.”

Gossett said he loved hearing the stories John would tell him of his youth with his Italian grandparents and encounters of different musicians before they became famous.

“These memories will last me a lifetime,” he said.

Likewise, Elizabeth enjoyed hearing her father read stories to her and her sisters before they’d go to sleep.

“Dad tells a really good story,” she said. “He would read us stories and bring the story to life.”

Gossett said John’s legacy will live on through the shop.

“His legacy, part of it is being carried out from the shop-quality merchandise, high quality craftsmanship, a good price and treating everybody the same,” he said.

Likewise, the name will stay the same.

“I’ve had people ask, ‘Are you going to change the name?'” Gossett said. “Absolutely not. I’m not going to change it. It’s a part of his legacy.”

Meanwhile Gossett is encouraging anyone with a story about Cobbler John to stop in and share it with him.

“I’m going to do something here in the story that’s going to be an honor and tribute to him,” he said, adding he’s unsure exactly what that is at this point. “Write a story or a letter. Talk with me, share your story…We celebrate (John’s) life because of what a great guy he was. As humans, we’ll miss him and we’ll see him again, but not on this side.”