NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) – You may pass by them on the sidewalk or in the airport. Shoe shiners have made a career out of an old-school art.
In a modern world this job may seem out of step, but now shoe shining is the forgotten profession that’s back in fashion, reports CBS2’s Steve Overmyer.
Kevin Tuohy and his staff in Chelsea Market are giving this job some new found prestige.
He connects with people from all walks of life, but the shiners here also share another common bond: They’re all recovering alcoholics.
“I get choked up just thinking about it,” said Touhy. “It kept me around, and the business wouldn’t have succeeded without the 12 Steps and my friends doing the same thing, supporting each other.”
“I’ve chosen recovering alcoholics because I wanted company while I was working alone shining shoes,” said Touhy. “So I started hiring them and it became the Sober Shoeshine Club.”
Kevin founded the Shoeshine Guild 23 years ago. They’ve expanded to eight locations in San Francisco, New York and Japan. Their success is built on their expertise.
“I don’t like to have wrinkles on my rag, you don’t want to see wrinkles on the shoe,” he said. “A little dab will do you. This has got really strong oils on it, there’s matte, there’s semi-gloss, high gloss, kind of like paint. You don’t want to treat every shoe the same.”
In a city where people spend up to $2,000 for a pair of shoes, for $10 to $25 you can get the top-level preservation.
“I wish it was about the money because I could use some. But I love people. It’s about loving your fellow man. Just giving all you have to do the best job you can.”
After five years shining shoes, Tuohy stepped away. The attack of September 11th inspired him to answer his country’s call to service. He spent his tour of duty in the Middle East with the Army Infantry. Ironically, his boot shining technique was perfected by a Navy SEAL.
“He would show up with shiny shoes, and I would be so nervous because they’re already shiny,” said Tuohy. “This guy raised my shoe shining to a whole other level because I got so good making them even shinier. He schooled me.”
It takes an expert knowledge of leather care and the touch of an artist.
“Every shoe is different,” he said. “There’s so many different colors and so many different leathers and textures: Ostrich leather, elephant leather, stingray, boar skin, deer skin, calf skin, cowhide. It’s an art.”
Every shoe is a canvas, and Touhy is the artist. He can dress up any type of shoe, but there are limits.
“You know those little kids shoes, the sneakers that have the lights on them?” he said. “That’s cool, but if an adult has lit up shoes – like you’re a rhinestone cowboy or electric cowboy – I can’t do that. It’s a bridge too far, you lose me. I can’t help you! I can’t put polish on the lights!”
So is he a craftsman, artist or entertainer?
“I like being an entertainer,” said Touhy. “I like having a laugh. If you make them laugh, there’s nothing like it. So its art and performance. That’s who I am.”
Over the past 23 years, the Shoeshine Guild has helped more than 100 recovering alcoholics find stability. This work isn’t just about adding luster to shoes, it’s also about helping people recover their shine.
“By helping myself, I’ve been able to help others, and also to be kind. Without that kindness, what’s the point?”