The times they are a changing. It’s tough to find a tailor, a seamstress, a shoe repairman and woefully, an individual who’s mastered the art of shining shoes.
But in the center of D.C.’s downtown Amtrak Station, you can still chew the fat, listen to some old-school R&B tunes and get one of the best shoe shines on the East Coast.
Union Station Shoe Shine, a Black-owned business, has been around since 1979. Its current owner, David Kirkley, learned the trade from the original proprietor, the late Paris Thompson. Now, he’s training others to make a man or woman look their best – from the feet up.
“We’ve always been here but in several different locations: in the men’s washroom, then downstairs and finally, after the station underwent a badly-needed renovation, we were relocated here in the main concourse,” said Kirkley, 43 who resides in Prince George’s County and has lived in the area since the age of 4.
“I started working for Mr. Thompson in 1991 and he promoted me to manager around the time that he became ill. By the time he needed to step down, I was ready to take over the business,” Kirkley added.
Union Station Shoe Shine has 10 employees including one single parent mother, Mary Bossard, and according to Kirkley he’s in the process of adding two or three more workers.
“Business really picks up after Labor Day and it’s pretty intense for us until June,” he said. “We have three chairs now but I’d like to add a fourth if we can negotiate the space.”
Kirkley attributes several reasons why so few shoe shine parlors exist today.
“This is a throwaway generation and many young people don’t value good quality shoes,” he said. “Then you have manufacturers who don’t make the kinds of shoes that we had in the past. Fathers once brought their sons to have their shoes shined. That doesn’t happen a lot these days. So it’s really a dying art.”
However, despite the shortage of shoe shine craftsmen, the industrious businessman said one can still make a good living.
“We put our guys through a two-week training process and before they’re allowed to touch a customer’s shoes, they have to learn about colors, how to apply different polishes and understand how different leathers must be properly treated,” he said.
“We always apply at least two or three coats and we shine shoes the old-fashioned way. I believe that’s the reason for our success. We have a pretty high customer retention rate. Our customers are loyal,” Kirkley said.
The majority of his clients still remain men – about 85 percent according to Kirkley. But the racial makeup of his customers may come as a surprise.
“Being in the heart of Capitol Hill in a location where businessmen, politicians and other movers and shakers come and go every day, helps us a lot. Many people come into D.C. and want to look the part. They know their shoes have to look good. That’s the service we provide. And while our employees are all Black, I’ve found that the ethnic breakdown of our clients is pretty equally distributed. People of all colors come here looking and expecting quality work,” he said.
Kirkley could only think of one or two other shoe shine parlors in the DMV – at least those who, like his shop, maintain a constant and reliable schedule of hours.
“We also provide mobile services and do quite a few conventions and trade shows,” he said. “Whenever we get the call, we pack up our portable stands and go do our thing. Our youngest guy, Antoine, 20, started when he was 17. We’re passing the knowledge to our youth.”
“We all take pride in what we do. And we earn good money while working in a stress-free environment,” he said.
Union Station Shoe Shine remains open for business seven days a week: Monday – Friday, 6 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Saturday, 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.; and Sunday 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information call 202-642-7748 or go to unionstationshoeshine.com.