I shine my shoes with a Kiwi Leather Care Kit I bought at Walgreens: a sponge applicator, a horsehair brush, a rag, and two cans of polish: black and brown. No matter how much I scrub and rub and spit on the toes of my Cole Haan 2.ZEROGRAND Laser Wingtip Oxfords, I cannot extirpate the scuffs. I cannot make the leather glow.
For a real shine, I needed a professional, a shoeshine man with a spray bottle and a snapping cloth and a stand where I could prop my shoes on a metal foot rest. In this era of remote work, when no one dresses up to go to the office anymore, a shoeshine stand is as out-of-date as a telephone booth, or an Automat. To find one, I had to go all the way out to Austin, where Shine King, 338 N. Central Ave., has been doing business a block south of the Green Line since 1970.
As soon as I walked through the door, beneath a pair of speakers oozing R&B, David Thurman waved me over to his chair. The shine men here still compete for business, as though this is the corner of State and Madison in 1965. I sat down in Thurman’s chair and propped up my Cole Haans. The storefront-sized room was packed with a half-century’s accretions: a Dr. Pepper machine that no longer dispenses pop, a jukebox that no longer plays R. Kelly or D’Angelo. A sign identifying the shop as COLE’S FRIENDLY SPOT. THE ROOM WHERE IT HAPPENS. Wooden racks piled with paper bags full of shoes, waiting to be shined. A spiral-bound notebook in which the names of the shoes’ owners were recorded by hand. At the counter, a man in overalls sat behind stray spray bottles, polish cans, shoe horns, and a cash register on which were taped the house rates: shoes on the feet, $5; off the feet, $6; after hours, $8.
Thurman started the shine by wrapping masking tape around the white rubber soles of my shoes.
“I don’t want to get polish on them,” he explained.
That was Pro Tip No. 1. Pro Tip No. 2: He shampooed my shoes with a brush, wiped them down with a rag, then rubbed on naphtha, a petroleum byproduct, to clean off the old polish. I do not keep naphtha in my closet. Next came a polishing cream, applied with a brush, and wiped off with a diaper Thurman wrapped around three fingers.
“Some people do two fingers,” he said. “I do three. A diaper’s the best form of cotton. If it’s not gonna scratch the baby, it ain’t gonna scratch the shoes. This step here’s called rubbin’ in the shoes, rubbin’ in the polish.”
While Thurman worked, Jameson Cole slid into the chair beside me and told me the story of Shine King. The stand was founded by his father, James Cole, the original Shine King, who died last July at age 78. James’s photo is in the front window. He started shining shoes in 1963 on the sidewalk outside a pool hall at Madison and Kedzie. He’d take his earnings inside to hustle pool.
“One thing didn’t go his way, and then he just started shining shoes,” Jameson said. James took over a record store on the corner, but moved west to Austin after the Martin Luther King riots.
“We still got two or three people who got their shoes shined on the sidewalk comin’ in,” Jameson said. “Pastor Johnny Miller of New Mount Vernon Missionary Baptist, he started going to my father when he was in high school. Before COVID, when we were open Sunday mornings, all the pastors would come in. You have people who come in here, they like to sit here, it’s almost like a barbershop vibe, Saturday mornings.”
Just then, a man hurried through the door, dropped two pairs of size 13 Allen Edmonds dress shoes on the counter, and just as quickly walked out. The shoes, Jameson informed me, belonged on the feet of Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson, who lives in the neighborhood.
“He sends his shoes in here,” Jameson said. “The day he went down to Springfield to speak, they said, ‘He can’t go down there lookin’ like this.’ We got it done within an hour.”
Thurman sprayed my shoes with water from a bottle — “I call that my spit. You spit. That’s nasty.” Then he set to “buffing off” with a rag “to make the shoe shine come way up higher.” Finally, he whitened the stitches with a stitch pencil, and washed the dingy soles with soap and water. My shoes were so bright that an orb of light glowed on each toe wherever I walked. But then, Thurman has been shining shoes for 48 years, since he was an 11-year-old. He shone in the financial district for 26 years, making the shoes of the city’s luminaries even more luminant. He ticked off his customers, like a newspaper columnist listing bold-faced names: Gary Fencik, Craig Hodges, Michael Bilandic, Mike Ditka, Tim Weigel, Roland Burris — “clientele out of this world.”
Today, there’s only one shoe shine stand left in the Loop, next to the Cadillac Theater, and only one man works there.
“A lot of people ain’t getting dressed up as much as they used to,” Thurman explained.
Now he shines at Shine King, the last redoubt of a disappearing trade. If you’re in Austin, stop in for a good shine. Or go to Austin just for a good shine. You can’t get one too many other places.