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Earn a Living Shining Shoes. . . Really

Earning a Living as a Bootblack
"Shoeshine boy on the street during the Depression, circa 1929."
Can someone make a living shining shoes in today's economy?  At on time there shoe shine boys as they were called were found on street corners across the country, thousands of them.  Many were from poor families and worked to help support themselves and their families.  Today, I found three established shoe shine stands in downtown Seattle, plus two bootblacks, the traditional name of those who shine shoes, working on the streets of Seattle.

Meet George Johnson, age 74 on October 20th, a self-employed operator of a shoe shine stand in downtown Seattle's Rainier Place.  George has been shining shoes for the last sixty years, starting in Arkansas and ending up some thirty years ago at the Washington Athletic club a few blocks from his current location.

"Sixty years," I asked him the day we met.  "You ever think of retiring?"

"Gonna work until I can't do it no more," he replied.  "I don't even think about it.  Not planning on quitting."  This despite being diagnosed ten years ago with Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig's Disease, an illness that destroys the nerves that control voluntary muscle movement.  Given five years to live, his continued operation is evidence his positive attitude and loyalty to his customers. 

At his stand from 7:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. daily, or until his work is done because it's common for customers to drop off shoes in the morning to pick up that afternoon. 

He learned the craft at local barber shops around his home where he waited until a customer sat down for a haircut and a shave, and would "take my kit over and start shining," a sales tactic known as "assuming the sale." 

He was working at the Athletic Club until he was recruited away to Littlers Menswear by Larry Fry.  Fry was at the club, and heard George's boss berating him for being 25 minutes late to clock in.  Fry told George that he had shined his last shoe there, and that he had a job at Littlers as soon as he wanted.  George said that when asked what hours he was to work, Fry told him, "Make your own hours."  George smiled as he told me, "I work more ever since than when I was punching that clock."

When Littlers closed some years ago, Fry told the building management to find George "a damn good spot."  George has been at a crossroads of two corridors at the base of the stairs since, with his shine chair, a little waiting area and a wide-screen TV for customers ever since.

As to the famous who stop by, he seems most proud of the pilots of the U.S. Navy's Blue Angels who stop by every year when in Seattle for the airshow.  Every year he meets two or three new pilots who bring by their shoes for George's special touch, taking pictures of themselves grouped around George.

George realizes that his health won't hold up forever, but says his daughter who works nearby wants to take over the stand when her father has to retire.  Just looking at him and watching him work, it won't be soon, it won't be soon at all.

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  • James Brown – "The Godfather of Soul", shined shoes along the avenue in Atlanta that now bears his name.
  • Rush Limbaugh– radio talk show host, shined shoes as a young boy to make spending money.
  • Lee Trevino – professional golfer
  • Malcolm X – worked as a shoeshine boy at a Lindy Hop nightclub in New York City.
  • Rod Blagojevich – ex-Governor of Illinois and now resident of a federal prison.
  • Scrooge McDuck, the Dell Comics character, famously won his Number One Dime shining shoes.

In researching this piece, I came across online articles on how to start a shoe shine stand, how to shine shoes, even how to build a portable stand with a seat for the customer and places to stow supplies.  This is definitely an inexpensive business to start, and the keys to success are:
  • Location, location, location.  Find a spot anywhere that men or women in business attire and  leather shoes pass by, say in front of an office tower or near downtown shops.
  • Be early and stay late so that your customers know where and when to find you.
  • Make sure your shoes are in good shape and shined to a high-gloss finish.
  • Be personable, be friendly but do your job quickly and professionally.
  • Practice a little showmanship, make the customer feel they are getting they can't get anywhere else.
  • Competitive pricing.  A basic shine is around $5.00 to $7.00 plus a tip.  As always, people equate quality with price, the higher the price, the better the quality.
Want to see a true professional at work?  Watch this five minute video paying special attention to the showmanship.  This is how to earn a customer.

Pretty cool, huh?  Notice how the two men were dressed?  Very nicely, and I'll bet their shoes were immaculate, too.  And with the showmanship, the customer felt he received something special in addition to value for the money.  Agreed?

Is there potential in this business?  George fed and raised a family working alone at his shop five nine hour days a week.  A stand in another office tower several blocks away supports two generations of bootblacks, while the stand near the men's department of a fashionable store nearby has eight full and part-time employees.  Finally, one of the bootblacks working on the street told me that he took the business over from his father who worked downtown Seattle, and that supports him, a cousin and a nephew.

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The Entrepreneur's Bookshelf ~
The more you know about small business management and financing before you start, the more likely you are to succeed.  That's why I urge anyone thinking of starting a business to contact their local Small Business Development Center or Community College.  I have also organized this bookshelf for you at Powell's Books, the world's largest single site new and used bookstore, featuring the latest books on small business start-ups, marketing, and small business money management.   
A Selection Related to this Post:

Click on this link to see all the selections on ~

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