The spark for this serial post was the hashtag #firstsevenjobs that swirled around social channels from leading corporate CEOs and leaders throughout industry. I’ve been working in the advertising business for almost four decades. When I started to compile my #firstsevenjobs list since I started working at age 11 or so—I realized I had a rich, varied and unusual education. What struck me most was all the jobs that I had leading up to finally figuring out what I was good at (or at least successful at) in this business. And what I learned, mistakes I made, and observations about people that helped me get here one way or another. I’ll write one every few weeks.
Job two. Shining shoes for fifty cents plus tips.
I remember a “fact” about my old hometown—Jersey City, NJ—that rings pretty true: there’s a bar or a church on every other corner of Jersey City. It’s actually a strange juxtaposition of religious fervor on one corner meets a world of seedy temptation on the next. And whether it’s fact, fiction, or “urban myth,” we had a lot of bars in town and a good amount of churches from the big well-established faiths to street corner churches with transformative evangelical names longer than their list of congregants. But the taverns were the sweet spot and focus for my fledgling business as a shoeshine kid.
I had really low overhead and a simple pricing plan: 50 cents for a shoeshine, 75 cents for a half boot or what we’d call a chukka boot, and $1.00 for a full boot. Plus tips that often exceeded the cost of the shine. Assets: an old wooden shoeshine box kit strung over my shoulder by a rope filled with my key raw materials. Black, brown, natural, and cordovan polish in round cans. Plus one can of occasionally needed saddle soap to tackle those shoes and boots that needed to have the life brought back to them before you could shine them. And a bunch of torn rags for applying polish. The big ticket items were the horse hair brushes for the four colors purchased from the Fuller Brush man who’d visit our apartment every now and then. And the four chamois cloth polishing rags needed to buff shoes to mirror-like brilliance.
Flexible hours and special customers
The job was ahead of its time with flexible work hours that gave me nice life balance for a kid. I could pick up my shoe box and decide to head out any time I wanted. And that’s basically how I “ran” the company for a year or so. Worked almost every day for a few hours in summer and on weekends during daytime—but had to wait until 12 noon on Sunday for bars to open. Still, there were a surprising amount of daytime customers in Jersey City bars every day of the week (even on Sunday). Patrons had all kinds of jobs and work hours and over time you’d get to know the clientele based on what shift they worked and their bar time.
An underserved market that was often over-served
The peak and most profitable dayparts, however, were Friday and Saturday night. They were also some of wilder times with more characters, ornery imbibers, tipsy customers, and effusively happy and generous drunks per shine than any other night of the week. That’s why, on weekend nights, our business model expanded into a partnership. On those nights, I and one of my buddies, Danny O’Halloran would work together. That made it easier for us to take care of the foot traffic, so to speak, plus it was just safer to have another guy with you to keep an eye out. On some weekend nights, we’d also venture into the Union City bars in an area called the “transfer station” from old RR crossings—but people would call it the “Barbary Coast” for good reason with its rich, seedy history. One of the bars used to be owned by Jersey mobster Dutch Schultz in the ’30 s. Live music on weekends from “name” bands also drew raucous boisterous crowds. Sometimes they wanted their shoes and boots shined—sometimes they didn’t. We ran out of many a bar right before a pool game turned into a fistfight. Or one of our customers decided not to pay us or ask for a re-shine. Or look a little too interested in our wad of cash while we were making change.
Aside from the rough and tumble crowds you’d run into, there was the occasional barkeep who’d toss you out of his bar with a booming “getdah hellouttahere and doncha come back.” Some barkeeps saw the shoeshine business as a competitive threat to their tips, and an unwanted distraction to his customers tossing back shots and beers. It didn’t take long to figure out that a small tip to the bartender for letting us into his joint dramatically improved how we greeted next time.
I also got to meet (starting from the ankles up) a lot of interesting people. All walks of life frequented these bars at all times of day and night. Lots of hardworking guys out after a shift for “one or two” that often seemed to stretch way beyond those self-imposed limits. Businessmen, store owners, salespeople, occasionally and somewhat awkwardly… a father of a friend, a neighbor’s dad or distant relative. And yes, more than once, one of our local parish priests who needed a bit more than sacramental wine to quench his thirst. The protocol was understood by all parties in those circumstances: avert eyes, ignore each other and make a hasty exit. Somehow we all knew that we weren’t supposed to be in that place at that time of day.
Some shining lessons
Brightly shined shoes make people feel good. People feel more confident, even better dressed, no matter what they’re wearing when their shoes are gleaming. And how your shoes look reflect on how people perceive you—just ask defeated 1952 presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson.
In the shoeshine business, the show is as important as the shine. Yes, I had to make sure those wingtips and box toe shoes were gleaming when done. But the process of getting there was also part of what my customers paid for and expected. And I think the better the show—the larger the tip. Here was my routine: First the dry brush to get off the dust and dirt. Followed by a nice application of polish applied with two rag-wrapped fingers along with a little spit and rubbed in all around and into the leather. Second brushing to keep bringing up the shine. A second application of polish—lighter this time. Last round of brushing. Sometimes I’d use two brushes one on each hand for this part—alternating hands for speed. Penultimate step, a dribble of water spray especially on the tip of the shoe. And then the big final buffing with the chamois cloth. Begin with a slow hard rhythmic rub and build to a crescendo with occasional snaps of the cloth – just for dramatic effect. A quick wipe of the back heel and then a nonchalant tap under the sole of the toe to signal to the customer to that the job was done.
The show and the effort almost always yielded a tip, often three to four times the cost of the shine. Not a bad profit margin in any business.