My “At the Airport” column for USATODAY this month is all about the incredibly hard-working people who work at shoeshine stands at airports around the country.
I’d spotted shoeshine stands occasionally at airports, but didn’t realize what an ‘out of time’ and endangered service this can be.
Bottom line: wear some nice shoes to the airport, get them shined and be a generous tipper.
“People used to spend time getting ready to travel,” said Hector Diaz, who has managed the five-locations of the Shoe Hospital at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport for 10 years, “Now they just get up and put on gym shoes, sandals or whatever. Some mornings customers are still wearing pajama bottoms when they come in to have their shoes shined. It gets confusing.”
With travel attire so informal, shoeshine services at airports may seem, like payphones, to be on the way out. But in the most recent passenger amenities survey conducted by Airports Council International –North America, the number of airports with shoeshine stands (about 50) exceeds those with business centers and TSA PreCheck enrollment stations.
Time-crunched business travelers are helping to keep most airport shoe shine stands in business, but in many airports it’s a long-held tradition of fast, friendly, inexpensive and, in some cases, complimentary services, that keeps customers coming back.
At Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, the two Like New Shoe Shine stands have been run by Wayne Kendrick’s family for about 40 years. Kendrick, who began helping his dad at the airport 33 years ago, now operates the stands at MSY with his brother, charging $7 for a shine, up just $2 from the $5 his dad charged years ago.
“He’s been called ‘the Mayor of the Airport’ on more than one occasion,” said MSY spokeswoman Michelle Wilcut, “Some people drop off their shoes before traveling and pick them up on their return. Wayne has also been known to walk out to the curb to pick up a bag of shoes from customers that are not traveling but need a shine.”
Javier Anchondo has been operating the Los Amigos Shoe Shine at El Paso International Airport for a dozen years, and has been charging $4 for a full shine for shoes or boots since 2005. Anchondo used to have special prices for armed forces members, employees, first responders and others, but that got too complicated so he decided to simplify things by offering the $4 deal to all.
At Chicago O’Hare International Airport the Shoe Hospital not only shines shoes ($6) and boots ($8), it also offers repair services for shoes, luggage, purses, bags, jackets and other leather items and sells accessories such as shoe laces, arch supports and shoe cushions, often to pilots and flights attendants. Passengers can drop off items in need of repair and pick up them up on their return trip or have repaired items mailed home.
“Shining shoes is a dying art,” says Denise Pullen, owner of the Classic Shine Company, “But I’m trying to keep that art in the forefront and bring it to venues – like airports – where it’s a convenience.”
Classic Shine operates at 5 airports, including Dallas/Fort International, Kentucky’s Louisville International; McGhee Tyson, near Knoxville; Northwest Arkansas Region Airport; Greenville- Spartanburg International Airport in South Carolina; and, soon, San Diego International Airport.
The company charges $8 across the board for its service.
“We perform the same steps whether we do shoes or boots, so we’re not going to charge more for one than the other,” said Pullen, “Plus, boot customers are some of our best customers – and our best tippers.”
In keeping with the “Keep Austin Weird” mantra, passengers at Austin Bergstrom International Airport have asked the staff at the Love Shines shoe shine stand to shine everything from fancy boots to casual Keens.
“I’ve heard a band give them a shout out from the airport music stage,” said AUS airport spokesman Jim Halbrook, “The singer had gotten his shoes shined there and was very happy with the quality.”
Another singer happy with the way his shoes and boots look after visiting an airport shoe shine stand is Lyle Lovett, who penned an essay for the Houston Chronicle about his deep appreciation for the shoe shine stand in Terminal C at Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport.
Although he says he’s capable of caring for his own footwear, “Even on days I wish I didn’t have to fly, I look forward to getting to the airport early enough to get a shine. There’s just something extra-good about a professional shine, something important,” Lovett writes.
And it’s not just the excellent shoe shine that Lovett likes. As the shine men and women are improving his boots, Lovett says he enjoys their stories and always benefits “from the pride they take in their work.”
Free shines; tips accepted
Over the past twenty years Marvin Earle and his team have shined shoes for hundreds of celebrities at shoe shine stands located in many of the terminals at Los Angeles International Airport. But whether or not the person in his chair is a celebrity, “I try to build a relationship with my customers. I talk, I listen, and I stay away from politics,” said Earle, “It’s about showing class and providing 100 percent customer service.”
As his company name “Marvin’s Complimentary Shoe Shine,” implies, Earle’s team does not charge a set price for shoe shine services, for shoe laces, for glued-back-on heels, or for the reconditioning magic they perform on purses, belts and bags. Instead, they make their money from tips. And while Earle said sometimes people distracted by their cell phones don’t leave a tip, most customers tip an average of $7.
Rick Evans has owned the Shine on the Go shoe shine stand at Missouri’s Kansas City International Airport for eight years and is especially proud of his shoe shine chair, which was made for him by the wood shop teacher from a local high school.
Evans adopted a “no set price,” policy about two years ago and declares it a positive move for his customers and for the bottom line of his business. “The policy creates repeat customers,” said Evans, “They like the idea that they get to set their price and most people are very fair.”
The shoe shiners at Executive Shine staff stands in all three concourses at Denver International Airport work on an average of 400 to 600 pairs of shoes, boots, and occasional sneakers – as well as belts and bags – every day. Here too, customers get to decide what they’ll pay for the work performed and “It’s not uncommon to see a small line of passengers waiting for a shoe shine,” according to Denver airport spokeswoman Daria Serna.
“Passengers today are just as likely as they were 40 years ago to want to look their best when they arrive at their destination,” said Serna “As long as this service continues to be in demand, we expect the airport shoe shine to continue to thrive.”