My dad used to always say you could tell more about a man by how he kept his shoes than anything else he was wearing. Shined shoes were important. There are only a few places to get that done anymore, besides the barracks at The Citadel.
Most shoe-repair shops will shine your shoes and there are plenty of products for purchase claiming everything from insta-shine to perma-shine. There's a shine spray, a shine sponge and there are special buffers, boxes and brushes. For my money, your best bet is to go to Charleston Place and find Nelson Bumpers.
Nelson has been shining shoes since he was 12 in the streets of Philadelphia and New Orleans. For the last 25 years, he's been in the Charleston Place Hotel. You'll find him near his shoeshine chair in the lobby of the hotel near the market. If he's not there, just go to the concierge desk. They'll find him. Once you sit in the chair, he's apt to offer everything from a weather report to a comment or two about the economy, college football or flip-flops.
Most days, he waits for the business to come to him. Other days, he makes stops in some of the downtown law offices and collects bags of shoes that will be returned after he's given them 'the Nelson treatment.'
His business is primarily local, but when people come to Charleston for the Wildlife Expo or Spoleto, it puts more customers in his chair.
He applies the polish the old- fashioned way, with his fingers. The black, brown or cordovan all blends together at day's end. The polish is just the beginning, the magic doesn't start until he makes the rag pop. That 'pop' echoes down the corridors of the shopping hall and prompts many an unsuspecting passer-by to flinch.
Elbow grease and pride
When he started, the going rate for a shoeshine was 25 cents. Today, depending on the tip, it's about $10. Does that mean the shine now is better than the shine back in the day? That has more to do with Nelson than with the price of polish. Elbow grease and pride mix quite well together.
He's tried to direct others to the business, but they're not as committed. He says, 'you've got to be there, 'cause the chair ain't gonna make any money by itself.' He used to have his chair outside and was open from 7 to 7, every day. The heat got to him, though, and he found a spot inside. He's there 10:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. seven days a week, but admits he comes in a little later on Sunday.
Years ago, my boys saw me shining my shoes one day and wondered what I was doing. They then asked if I'd shine theirs? I said, '… how 'bout I show you how to do it?'
Shoes are the foundation. Nelson says he can see a man wearing a $600 suit with dull shoes and it tells him this guy 'isn't all checked-out.' I stop to see Nelson from time to time. Whenever I get up, I seem to walk a little taller. Privately, I think it also makes my dad smile.
Maybe you can tell a lot about a man by the way he keeps his shoes. As I got up recently from his chair, I looked at Nelson's. They weren't brand new, but the shine was blinding.
Reach Warren Peper at firstname.lastname@example.org