Tux and Tact
Many workday mornings “Bea’s Boy” rises, showers and shaves, splashes on a spice-smelling scent, then decks himself out in an Eton tuxedo and shiny black shoes. His face is mature and handsome, his salt-and-pepper beard trimmed to a “T”and as he looks down for a final inspection of his shoes, he catches a glimpse of his "buff" reflection in the luster of his kid leather skins. His kicks, glistening like a newly-minted penny, are the most important component of his ensemble. They serve as a calling card to potential clients who may be interested in his company’s artistry.
His name is Oliver and his mother is Beatrice (or Be-AT-trice if you’re a down southerner), but everyone calls her Bea. “Sweet Bea” would be more exact since she is sweeter than her award-winning egg custard pie. She doesn’t bake anymore, not since she went to live at the Agape nursing center. But they dote over her there, braiding her beautiful, long gray hair and making sure she never misses the Bingo games or trips to the bowling alley. Everybody who knows Bea just loves her, even though there are days when a familiar face or name suddenly becomes a mystery to her.
"Sister" and “Brother”
Bea had six children and named Oliver after her military husband who passed away decades ago. She nicknamed him “Brother" and his older sibling, “Sister.”(Her real name was Louvonne.) "Sister” died of diphtheria at the age of 5. Relatives and friends still call Oliver “Brother,” mostly because his personality is so warm and endearing that he feels like one. Bea clocked thousands of working hours as a cook and chef to raise her children: Oliver, Ottalee, Howard, Rose Mary and Arthur. Bea was blessed with help from her relatives, siblings and mother,“Big Mama,” to “see after" the children while she was working. Everyone pulled together to make sure that the childrens’ needs were met and to instill in them the knowledge that their future was unlimited.
That's Bea’s Boy!
Oliver remembers the early days growing up in the small picturesque town of Chester, South Carolina, where everybody knew their neighbors. The townsfolk would see him on the street and affectionately proclaim, “That’s Bea’s boy over there!” He decided as a boy that he wanted to find a way to honor his mother for all the sacrifices that she was making.
D-I-Y & J-O-A-T
Oliver became a jack-of-all-trades: learning plumbing, electrical work and masonry from his uncles. He says his D-I-Y experience has saved him thousands of dollars over the years in unneeded repairmen. If there was something he didn't know how to fix, he would tinker with it until he could figure it out. His life took a different turn in high school when he became a hearse driver for a funeral home. He went on to become a fixer-upper of the "dear departed" when the mortician taught him how to prepare and “dress” bodies. In addition, he learned how to comfort grieving families by providing personal customer service, and he picked up tips on running the financial side of the business. Being the eldest child in the family, Oliver assisted his mom with his brothers and sisters. He felt supremely blessed to be able to use his expertise with the dead to help care for the living.
Bartering a Shine
After graduation, Oliver continued to learn life skills by enlisting in the U.S. Air Force. Of course, the No. 1 skill was survival, but he also had to keep an orderly living space and his military uniform had to be textbook perfect. “Every aspect of our dress was important and our shoes had to be as shiny as glass!" Oliver says. “The USAF provided the polish and we could develop our own shoe-shine style.” But he couldn’t seem to perfect the shine that his sergeants wanted, so he bartered his buddies to do it for him. "I was the king of the phone line, an expert at getting phone calls through. I would trade a phone call for anything, often it was for a shine. " Oliver says he never imagined that one day people would pay him for a shine.
City of Brotherly Love
When “Brother” re-joined civilian life, he resurrected his skills as an embalmer to work with funeral homes in the City of Brotherly Love. For several years after moving to Philadelphia, he says he would pass by shoe stands in buildings and malls and didn't like what he saw. "There would be folks hanging out and killing time" at the establishment. He says the shoe shiners themselves did not portray positive images -- dressing sloppily and using street language while on duty. He viewed it as the "Achilles' heel" of the shoe shine business. "You’re not going to get a lot of customers or respect that way," he says. So, he started thinking about forming his own shoe shine company, but on a solely different level. His vision was to elevate the art to provide shoe services at conventions, four-star hotels, special events and public spaces.
Oliver put his ideas into a proposal and began to brainstorm ways to shoehorn his way into the market. He decided to start at the top -- the 23-story Philadelphia Marriott Downtown. He was given just 5 minutes to make his case to the manager. “I was very confident, but very nervous," he says. Oliver had practiced his "elevator speech" over and over, and felt that he was more than ready for the meeting. "When it was done, she told me that she had to take some time to think about it because there was a lot involved due to contracting, insurance, workmen’s comp and so on. I had to provide proof that I could handle the obligations.” Oliver says his shoes were "so damn shiny" for the meeting that when he exited the room he left behind a glow!
Taking a Shine to the Chairmaker
While awaiting the big decision, Oliver decided to go ahead and make his move -- to put the pedal to metal or at least the polish to the leather. He Googled vintage-style shoe-shine chairs and contacted the premier chairmaker for an estimate. “He knocked me out of my seat,” Oliver said, “Telling me that it would cost $7,000 and take a month and a half to build! Not only that, I would have to pay the full amount up front.” It was clear that Oliver was not going to assemble his business on a shoestring budget. But he “took a shine” to the chairmaker and decided to put his best foot forward. “I spoon-fed the news to my wife by glossing over some details that may have been hard for her to swallow all at once.“ Well, maybe she did have reason for doubt because the chairmaker was 78 years old.
However, upon seeing the completed, custom-made chair, Oliver's heart was full (even if his pockets were empty). It was crafted of fine mahogany, with leather seats, brass trim and brass foot rails. It was truly the “Rolls Royce of shoe shine stands.” The craftsman and his wife were so proud of the handiwork that they drove the chair all the way from their home in Atlanta to Philadelphia. After they left, Oliver spent time alone with the newly-built creation, marveling at the workmanship, and dreaming of what it could mean for his future. It was like a throne for a king and he made up his mind to treat his clients like royalty.
Oliver was now a step closer to starting his shoe business, but it needed a name. He immediately thought about the one person who had done the most for him. “My mother is the most important person in my life,” Oliver says. “I always wanted to honor her in some way other than just being a good son, so I decided to name my company after her.” I named it “Bea’s Boy Shoe Treatments.” It was a gesture that had Bea beaming, but others were “blinded” by the implications.
What’s In a Name?
“I experienced a lot of pushback from my African American friends and associates over the name and the profession. Most of them were ‘turned off’ by the term ‘boy.’ “Even I had some misgivings about the name, but I decided to go forward because I will always be my mother’s boy.”
After careful consideration, the Marriott manager said she would allow Oliver to set up his “first chair.” He began scouring local barber shops and street stands to find the best “shine artists” that he could hire, male and female. He only hired those with experience, and who found satisfaction in their trade. He decided that they would all wear Eton short tuxedo jackets with white shirts and black ties. “They thought I was crazy at first. But I would buy the suits and they would go pick them up.” It was one of the special touches that set his business apart from the others. And customers did take notice. "Bea's Boy Shoe Treatments" was officially established in the year 2000. He says, "Despite all the doubters, from Day One it was a success!"
Oliver says he became a professional shoe shiner on the job at his own company. He learned that lady’s silk stockings are best to use for the final gloss, but many people use an undershirt or soft cloth. He mastered the so-called “spit” shine. “People do it all the time. It was applied literally for the longest to help work the polish into the grooves of the leather. People on the street would put spit on the shoes and use a spray bottle to apply a mist of moisture and work it into the pores of the leather. If a customer requests a spit shine, I always tell them that because of health regulations, we put it in the bottle before they got here," he laughs.
Honing the Art
“Shoe Shining has always been a time honed, if not time honored way of making a living for black folks," he says. "Bus stations, barber shops -- anywhere there is going to be a gathering, blacks have traditionally done that job and the upgrades that I made were aimed at changing the perception. My shine artists are all very articulate and wise, able to speak on a lot of topics. I have newspapers delivered to the job every day. Even though the shine artists are discouraged from starting conversations, they're able to engage the customers on current news and they can hold their own.”
"Traveling businessmen and businesswomen always want their shoes shined," he says. (If needed, he has a courtesy blanket available for women.) "It used to be that the bellman would have the task of shining shoes; it was part of their job, even though they protested. So we were able to step in and fill a niche." Over the years the business has continued to grow and Oliver has purchased 9 more custom-made shoe shine stands.
“Chattanooga Shoe Shine Boy”
Occasionally they run into a "heel" on the job. "About 5 years ago," Oliver says, "a male customer started singing ‘Chattanooga Shoe Shine Boy,’ and my partner got up to start swinging on him, but the customer’s companions apologized and trouble was averted. I have had blacks tell me that they felt offended because of our dress and our profession. They thought it was buffoonery. Sometimes doctors brought their shoes to be shined, but refused to sit in the chair because they said it felt demeaning. You know, perceptions die hard.”
Broken "Choo" Shoes
In addition to the Marriott, Bea’s Boy went on to set up a shine stand in the Ritz, the Bourse Building (across from the Liberty Bell), a Mercedes showroom, Saks 5th Avenue, a mall and even an upscale supermarket. Oliver says, "The average cost for a shine runs from $7-$10 bucks." The company has now expanded its services to include repairs to shoes, purses, luggage and even baseball mitts. One of our most popular treatments is called Bunion Relief -- a process in which we stretch an area of the shoes to create something of a bubble to relieve pressure in the bunion area. We have had jobs in which we shined cowboy boots worth $10,000. I remember a very unfortunate incident in which we cut down heels to shorten a pair of Jimmy Choo shoes for a customer, but the shoe broke and it cost us $500 to replace!”
Shoes of the Stars
“In this line of work, I have had the pleasure to meet many celebrities and politicians, including President Bill Clinton a couple of times and I shined President Barack Obama’s shoes when he was running for office, though I never met him." Other clients include political lightning rods like Dick Gregory, Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, newscaster Walter Cronkite and actress Pam Grier. I was once summoned to singer Elton John’s suite, not to shine his glamorous shoes, but to clean them. I have shined some very fancy shoes for comedian Steve Harvey and also those of the late actor Sherman Hemsley of The Jeffersons. “I tried to pull off a shine that would even make ‘Weezy’ proud.”
Giving the “Treatment”
Oliver says, “When I see a person wearing shiny, well-kept shoes, it says he has confidence and is concerned about how he is perceived by the public. There is an art to ‘treating shoes’ correctly. It’s important when you take great pride in what you do.“ Oliver says he sometimes travels around to his locations like an “Undercover Boss,” making sure his shine artists are suited up properly and wearing the correct shoes. “There is a lot of technology these days," he says, "but a machine can’t appreciate the leather and the style; it can’t determine what is needed. The most important part is the hands-on experience of getting your shoes shined.”
"Shine on Me”
“If I see a person walking down the street, I consciously look at their shoes. Lots of times I will stop people and give them a card for a complimentary shine. If their shoes look impeccable, I would like to think that they just left Bea's Boy's,” he smiles. As for undertaking, Oliver still works 5-6 bodies a week. In Pennsylvania, he says 95% of the caskets are open from head to toe. "I pay special attention to the face and the shoes, because in death as in life, that’s what people tend to look at.” You might say "Bea’s Boy” has the utmost concern for all of his customers, whether they’re coming or going.
Shoe Shine Stereotype
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