..............15th anniversary

Canadian Business Online

Matthew McClearn

Journalists--even those of the business persuasion--are generally a casual lot. But over the years, I've struggled to retain a sense of decorum, and hence have acquired a closet chock-full of suits, ties, shirts, cuff links and other staples of the professional male. Footwear, however, has not figured prominently in this collection. My disdain for dress shoes knows no bounds--smooth leather soles are almost as impractical as curling sliders when confronted with slippery pavement or glossy marble floors in office towers.
A few years back, I sported a pair of black leather steel-toed and -shanked shoes that provided protection from nine-inch nails underfoot and electric shocks. A tad inelegant,
I'll admit, but more than a match for any rugged urban terrain I'm likely to encounter.
And honestly, how often do a man's shoes become the object of scrutiny?

Such was my attitude before I met Nick Theodoru. He's the full-time shoe-polishing
artist at the Men's Salon, a gentlemen's grooming establishment in BCE Place on Bay Street in Toronto. Here, pinstriped wheeler-dealers are obsessed not only with making
a million bucks, but also looking like it head-to-toe. As Theodoru is fond of telling me in his weathered Macedonian accent: "You want to make money, you've gotta have shiny shoes."

Apparently, this logic goes a long way on Bay Street. Theodoru has customers who appear daily--sometimes more than once--to have their trompers buffed. For some,
it's as imperative as a cigarette or coffee break. "They're addicted, what can I say?" Theodoru shrugs. Like the hairstylists snipping away nearby, Nick engages his clients
in idle chatter. His favorite subjects include women, money and politics--which seem to play well with the macho pinstriped clienteleShoeshining evokes images of impoverished street-corner servants diligently buffing the wing tips of the wealthy. This dreary image is not altogether unearned: around the world, the vocation has often attracted poor unskilled laborers seeking a way to support themselves. At the Men's Salon, however, Theodoru elevates it to an art form. I've seen him give new life to my hideously scuffed and ostensibly ruined Dr. Martens from the dark recesses of my closet--a graveyard for items earmarked for painting and other dirty work I'll never get around to doing.

If shining shoes is indeed an art form, it is a neglected one. In the early days of the 20th century, a wider spectrum of white-collar workers sported well-polished shoes. These days, however, it seems that only executives, lawyers, salesmen and a handful of other professionals have made them part of their attire. Even on Bay Street, you won't see street urchins perched on every corner, cloth in hand. You're only sure to find shiners at airports and luxury hotels. Penny Simmons, who founded Penny Loafers Shoe Shine Co. in Toronto six years ago and now operates three downtown locations, suggests it has a lot to do with the decline of the military tradition in Canada. "The first things you learn when you go into the military are how to make your bed and how to shine your shoes," she says. "Post-World War II, Canada hasn't gone to war; we've just gone to peace. The military influence in the US has kept up, so there's a stronger market down there." Also, she hypothesizes that because of the longer hairstyles of the '60s and '70s, sons no longer visited the barbershop with their fathers--where they might have picked up the habit.
But shining your shoes is coming back, Simmons affirms. Even women--who have been largely excluded from the tradition--are coming around to her shops in greater numbers, although they often prefer dropping their shoes off rather than perching on those imperious elevated thrones. Simmons sees it as a critical part of anyone's grooming. "You can tell a lot about a person from his shoes," Simmons says. Polished shoes say something about "where you come from and where you're going. When we give a person the once-over, we look head-to-toe. Why do people stop at the ankles?"

Convincing professionals to reveal the tricks of the trade can be daunting. Theodoru's secret weapons include Lincoln shoe polish (popular with professionals, but not readily available to consumers) and a buffing machine that consists of a rotating brush connected to what looks like a retro four-slice stainless steel toaster. This mysterious device--which his boss picked up in Chicago six years ago--requires many years of experience (Theodoru has 15 under his belt) and a steady hand. "You don't want to be shining the guy's socks, right?" he says.

Don't try this at home, Theodoru admonishes. "It's impossible to do this at home. Impossible! People don't have patience these days." He adds, Zen-like: "Everything must connect. The polish, the brush, the shoe, everything...even yourself." Having attempted to replicate his craftsmanship with my cheap brushes and crusty Kiwi polish, I must concede that his warning is more than simple self-promotion. Sure, the shoes (not to mention my fingers) look blacker after I'm done, but Theodoru's glossy, mirror-like finish has so far eluded me.

Still, avowed do-it-yourselfers might wish to save themselves the expense (a shine in downtown Toronto runs $5 or more, plus gratuity). And there are people who have no choice--particularly those serving in the Armed Forces, who must keep their footwear glistening like a placid lake at sunrise. Officer Cadets Jonathan Methot and Jessica Davis (respectively, fourth- and third-year students at the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ont.) know all about that. They shine their parade boots and other footwear at least once a day. A sloppy job won't escape the scrutiny of superiors during inspections. Methot's boots actually won a shining competition last year and were featured on a Canada Post stamp celebrating the 125th anniversary of RMC.

After apprenticing at the feet of the masters, I have compiled my own guide for those headstrong individuals who insist you don't have to be a pro. Here are the fine points:
Wipe them clean: It's imperative to clean your shoes first. After all, you wouldn't wax a dirty car or paint dusty walls. Simmons uses saddle soap and removes the crud accumulated through daily wear-and-tear with shaving and toothbrushes. But a damp rag will do in a pinch.

Apply the polish: When shining a shoe the first few times, Methot explains, you'll need to apply polish liberally to establish a base coat. For the first dozen or so polishes, use a round applicator brush (available at any shoe supply store) to spread the wax. But after that base coat is obtained, restraint is the key. "Everyone has this inclination to put on gobs of wax," says Simmons. "You just want a thin coat." She actually uses her bare hands to ensure it's evenly applied. Be sure to get wax into the crevice between the leather and the sole. Let it dry before moving on to the next step.

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