I walk to work downtown every day, and I always get a smiling nod from an apron-clad gentleman positioned either just inside or outside of the shoe repair shop at 109 N. 10th St. I mistakenly believed him to be the owner--it's actually owned by longtime Boise shoe repairer Bob Riebe--but 46-year-old Jeff Kirby is literally the face of the business. For nearly 29 years, save some time off to work in a restaurant or patch up a computer, he's worked as what he calls "boot black to shoe shiner to shine-ologist engineer."
During a recent shine, Kirby unfolded his story to me--that of joining the industry in 1981 in order to escape working at a dairy in Eagle, to working in the back of the now-defunct Nick's shoe store on Main Street, to the famous folks he's encountered in nearly three decades of service.
How are shines priced in your store?
Usually just on the foot, it's $4 for the shoes and $5 for the boots. And if you drop off, it's $2 more. They're harder to do.
Why is it harder to shine a shoe that doesn't have a foot in it?
It's harder to hold onto. If it's on the foot, I can use both hands. When I have to use one hand, it takes longer to do 'em, and you have to work a little harder to get a shine to them when you have to hold them down.
Do you think shining shoes is becoming something of a lost art form?
Eh, it's hard to tell. When I got into it, there were 12 of us [in Boise]. Now there's only four of us left. And shoe repair--there's only like three shoe repairs left ... It's a dying breed.
Would you say the current state of the economy is adversely affecting your job and income?
It actually helps us out. G'morning, Andy [to another walk-in customer]! It actually helps us out because people are tending to take care of shoes and repair them more than buy new ones.
What about the gender breakdown? Are all of your customers men?
I'd probably say about 80 percent are males ... We're trying to get more females in here. But there for a while, it was very rare to see a woman come in to get a shine, but now they're starting to come in and get their shoes shined.
How do women's shoes compare to men's shoes in ease of shine?
Well, you've gotta be pretty open-minded on different colors with women. You know, men, it's usually just brown or black. Women like blue to red to ...
Who are the most notable people whose footwear you've polished?
You know, I've shined all the governors from John Evans and up. I shined Frank Church. I did J.R.'s boots. And two movie stars.
Without regard to political affiliation, just based on if they were six guys who walked through your door, who was your favorite governor?
I'd say, uh, Cecil ... He was the one that you could always joke with him, and he would joke back at ya.
What kind of conversations did you have with Sen. Church?
Just basically how the day's going. I never stuck in their business.
You never do? You never do with any of the politicians?
No ... They don't want to hear about it in here.
Do you stay up on who's who in the legislative branch so you know who they are when they come in?
Nah. I'm not very into politics. Two things you never discuss in business: politics and religion.
What about J.R. Simplot--how many times did you give him a shine?
Oh, gosh, it's hard to tell. I don't remember how many years he's been coming in.
What would you chat with him about?
Usually, not much. He'd come in, and he always was with somebody. He'd always do business.
He would conduct business while getting a shine?
And did he have a lot of different shoes?
A lot of boots.
What about the movie stars? Which ones came in?
Bruce Willis and George Kennedy. They're just down to earth.
Do you ever feel like a bartender sitting here? Or a hairdresser?
Oh yeah ... We keep the whole code of silence ... all the things we hear in here.
What about you? How many pairs of shoes do you own?
Me? Probably seven. These are the only ones I can actually shine. (Points to the dull black, residue-flecked shoes he has on.) Other than that, all my others won't shine.
You don't care if your own shoes are shiny?
No, I actually buy shoes that can't be shined. The last thing to do after shining shoes all day is my own.
Who makes the best shoe, would you say?
So far it would be Allen Edmonds. They're about a $350 shoe.
And who makes the worst shoe?
Oh gosh ... Right now it's gotta have to be the Cole Haan. The quality on them has gone down.
Is there a kind of shoe you see a customer bring in that immediately fills you with dread?
[With no hesitation] Yeah, white golf shoes (pointing to a pair on the shine stand). I'll wash my hands at least four to nine times before I get 'em done ... to get all the black off.
Do you have any crazy hobbies?
No, just normal ones. I do a lot of oil painting, gardening and cooking.
What would be your dream job?
Probably working on a cruise ship ... doing customer relations.
And where would you go?
Oh, anywhere the ship went.