Shoe polish stalls lose some shine End-shutdown

NEW YORK — On a recent winter business day at Penn Station Shoe Repair and Shoe Shine, men climb into shoe shine chairs and pull out newspapers and phones to read as shoe shines get to work applying shoe polish and elbow grease to loafers, boots and other leather shoes. When finished, these customers hand over $8 in cash at a counter where a sign says “We are not God, but we save soles.”

The shoeshine boy has a lauded history in the U.S. In the 1860s, Horatio Alger popularized the American rags-to-riches narrative with his book “Ragged Dick” about a shoeblack (or “shoeshine”) who open your way to wealth. “Shoeshine boys” (and occasionally girls) have subsequently appeared in countless movies and TV shows.

Today, the tradition of getting a quick polish from a ragged shoeshine boy has diminished considerably, and many stands similar to the one at Penn Station have disappeared across the country. The decline has been exacerbated by the pandemic, remote work and the rise in popularity of more casual workwear as people headed back to the office. SC Johnson, which makes the biggest brand of shoe polish, Kiwi, even said in January that it had stopped selling the brand in the UK due to declining demand (they still sell it in the US).

The last time the Census listed shoe shine as a discreet business was in 2007, when only 30 establishments were counted. The broader shoe repair market has declined approximately 23% between 2013 and 2023 to $307 million, according to market research firm IBISWorld. Shoe polish sales in 2022 totaled 27.3 million units, down 29% from 2019, according to Nielsen figures, a sign of changes brought about by the pandemic.

Nisan Khaimov, owner of the Penn Station booth, said his booth would shine 80 to 100 shoes each business day before the pandemic. It is now 30-50 Tuesday through Thursday, and less on Monday and Friday. The hybrid job is hurting his business.

“Until people are back to work, the problems will not be solved,” said Khaimov, who benefits from commuters traveling in and out of New York City who can’t shine their shoes where they live. “And it’s not good for homeowners and renters too like us. So, we are waiting. But eventually it will go back to normal, we hope. But when we don’t know.”

Rory Heenan, 38, an accountant in Philadelphia, said that as a child he would take the train with his father to work one Friday of every month and watch him shine his shoes.

“I was just sitting here like a little man, you know, watching,” he said. “And here I am, you know, 30 years later, doing the same thing. So it’s certainly something that is passed on over time.”

On the other side of the city, in the corridor between the subway and the Port Authority bus terminal, Jairo Cárdenas also feels the pinch. Business at Alpha Shoes Repair Corp., which he has run for 33 years, is down 75% compared to before the pandemic. He only has one shoe shine left, of the three he used before the pandemic. His shoeshine boys used to shine 60 or 70 shoes a day. Now a good day is 10-15 brights.

Cardenas’ landlord gave him a break on the rent, but he is still struggling and has seen several other shoe shine shops close in the area. Still, he is noticing an increase in people returning to work and expects business to slowly return to normal by spring.

Shoe repairs usually make more money than shines. At David Mesquita’s Leather Spa, which operates five shoe repair and polishing businesses, including two in Grand Central, most of the business comes from shoe, handbag and garment repair. But shoeshine boys are still a key offering in drawing people to Leather Spa locations, since they’re not available everywhere.

Before the pandemic, Leather Spa had four shoeshine chairs in Grand Central and six shoeshine boys on rotation, doing about 120 shines a day. Today, there are three shoe shines that give 40 or 50 shines on the best days.

But Mesquita is slowly seeing people return. Its December 2022 shoe shine numbers are up 52% ​​compared to December 2021. Mondays and Fridays are less busy than midweek due to office workers’ hybrid schedules.

“Traffic is slowly coming back, we are seeing travelers come in and everything, but we are still not 100% of what we were,” Mesquita said.

Mesquita said that shining shoes is not something that is going away completely.

“I think it’s just a little luxury,” he said. “People like to treat themselves, you know, either once or twice a week or, you know, once every two weeks. It is nice”.

Aside from the transit hubs of big cities, airports are one of the few places left to get a reliable shoe shine. Jill Wright owns Executive Shine, which operates shoe shine stations at the Denver and Charlotte airports. Her business was devastated when air travel shut down.

When the airports began to reopen, they were empty. The only people who got their shoes shined were the pilots and crew, he said, which kept his company in business. Now, Wright says his business is still just 35% of what it was in 2019.

“Traveling has really changed,” he said. “Businesses are starting to come back, but not to the extent that they have.”

Business travel is picking up, but the US Travel Association predicts that 2023 business travel will still be 10% down from 2019 and return to pre-pandemic levels in 2024. Meanwhile , people dress differently when they travel. Instead of traveling in work clothes, some travelers who still want to shine their shoes will travel in sneakers, take out their dress shoes to shine them, and then put them back in their bag, Wright said.

Like Mesquita, Wright hopes the demand for shoeshine boys will never completely disappear, because it’s more than just a transactional service. A glow is a moment of connection between two people, particularly in an airport where there is a lot of rush and stress, he said.

“People come for a shoe shine, but also for the connection and the conversation and just a place to relax and talk and be seen and feel some compassion,” he said.

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