Master bootblack practices a waning art in Boise

Master bootblack practices a waning art in Boise
Jim Walker, 72, works on the shoes of Idaho Stampede Assistant Coach Barry Rohrssen, Thursday Jan. 17, 2013. (AP Photo/Idaho Statesman, Darin Oswald)
BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Jim Walker is attuned to shoes. Stroll up to his stand and he'll take a quick, expert's glance at your feet before turning to say hello.

"Shoes tell you what you need to know," said the Boise native.

He has shined shoes in the lobby of the Grove Hotel for close to a decade. Besides a stint in the Army, shining and repairing shoes is the only work he's done in his 72 years. He practiced his craft at various spots in Downtown Boise — some gone now, like Roper's, the Shoe Emporium, the Mode Building.

He spent three decades at Lake Tahoe operating shoe repair shops and a shoeshine stand at Del Webb's Sahara Tahoe casino. That gave him the chance to shine Elvis Presley's boots — Italian-made San Remos with a zipper and a high heel, delivered to Walker's stand by an assistant. He has actually heard an announcer say the words, "Elvis has left the building" and has been on the receiving end of Frank Sinatra's generosity.

"Sinatra liked to sit and talk. He always gave me $100 for a shine, even if he had two shows in a day and got two shines. It didn't matter to him," said Walker.

His simple gray business card boasts an "uptown shine in downtown Boise." It does not include a cellphone number because Walker doesn't have one. It describes him as a "Master Bootblack."

He promoted himself to that rank a couple of years ago.

"A customer asked me what it takes to become a master. I told him it takes at least 50 years," said Walker.

He shined his first shoe at age 14. He had a summer job at Frank's Shoe Repair on Main Street. It was the mid-1950s, an era when Treasure Valley residents came Downtown every Saturday to perform standing rituals: They shopped; they got haircuts; they got their shoes shined.

Business was so good, Frank's had a row of six shoeshine chairs. The chairs were at floor level. Walker and the other bootblacks sat in a pit at clients' feet like players in an orchestra. The last chair in the row was reserved for ladies. It had a special curtain that snapped around their knees for modesty and protection from unwanted gazes from the pit, said Walker.

These days, he has a loyal clientele, including the current and two former governors and the lieutenant governor.

There isn't a person in town more savvy and well-informed than Jim Walker, said Mayor Dave Bieter, a regular.

"If Jim ever wrote a book, it would contain the secret history of Boise because he hears about everything," Bieter said. "But he never would because he's too discreet."

Walker has shined Brad Little's sharkskin boots for the last 12 years. A visit to Walker's stand was once a regular outing for Little, Sen. Bart Davis and Sen. Clint Stennett, who died in 2010.

"We'd need to get out of the building. We'd look at each other and say, 'It's time for a shine,'" said Lt. Gov. Little. "We'd walk down there, have a conversation, squabble over who was going to pay."

Walker has clients who travel from surrounding states for his shines — $6 in the chair, $7 for drop-offs and boots. He has a client from New York, a regular guest at the Grove Hotel.

"He told me he's been to 200 cities around the world, but he had to come to Boise to find a good shine," said Walker. The man asked him for a stack of business cards to take back East.

On a recent day, Boisean Max Adcox took a seat at Walker's stand. Adcox's father has been a customer of Walker's for years.

"I've been coming along with him for shines since I was a little kid," said Max.

But this was the first time the younger Adcox was getting his own shine — in preparation for his upcoming medical school interview.

"A shine is good for your shoes, but it's also good for your disposition. Makes you confident," said Walker.

A quality shoeshine is a delicate operation. Before shining Adcox's shoes, Walker tied the laces behind Adcox's ankle to keep them out of the way. Keeping the polish off a client's socks is an art.

"If I nick your socks with polish, the shine is free," said Walker.

He hasn't had to give away a shine in 30 years.

He praised Adcox's interview shoes, simple black leathers.

"If I had my way, everyone would wear basic black," said Walker.

But he stocks myriad polish colors made by Properts, established in 1835, and wax made by Angelus, established in 1907. He uses horsehair brushes, some he's had for 25 years.

Despite the loyal customers, business isn't what it used to be. Some days, Walker sips his coffee and works crossword puzzles without a single client stopping by.

"9/11 changed everything," said Walker.

People started opting for casual slip-ons. They gave up dress shoes so they could get through airport security faster. The workforce in general has become more casual, said Walker. Bootblacks have suffered the changes.

"Jimmy's not a fan of canvas shoes," said Brad Little.

An entire generation of young people have grown up wearing tennis shoes. "Youngsters walk by and don't even know what my stand is," Walker said.

At Tahoe, "you couldn't get into the casino show room without a jacket and tie. I'd set up my shoeshine stand at 5 p.m. and be busy until 1 in the morning," he said. "Now you see men in flip-flops and sandals. And those plastic shoes with the holes, like the kids wear."

Still, Walker treats all his customers the same, whether they walk up in a pair of Florsheims (once upscale, now "not worth taking home") or a swank pair of boots like those owned by a builder from San Francisco who gambled regularly at Tahoe.

The man would take off one boot and give Walker a $100 poker chip. He'd take off his other boot and hand Walker another chip. When Walker brought the shined boots to the man on the casino floor, he'd hand Walker a third $100 chip.

Walker has a lot of respect for a good pair of shoes. He still has a pair of alligator loafers he got in 1972. They have their original soles and heels.

"Neglect is what causes leather to go bad. With care, good shoes can last a lifetime," he said.

The best time to shine a pair of shoes: When they're brand new and don't even need it yet. A pre-emptive shine goes a long way.

Walker has learned a lot about people over the years.

Stars Raquel Welch and Ann-Margret were as beautiful in person as they were in the movies.

"They weren't really small girls, but they had small feet," said Walker.

Morticians were always good customers at Tahoe.

"They liked to party and dressed well."

Accountants and other "bean counters" are good customers but can be bad tippers.

"It's just part of their nature to watch the money," said Walker.

He has a good deal with the hotel. He pays a few hundred dollars for insurance but sets up his stand rent-free and sets his own hours. The hotel provides his daily coffee and newspapers, a cup of soup if he's hungry. He wants to keep working until he's 80. Then he'll go part time.

"I'll put up a sign that says 'The stand is open when I'm here and closed when I'm not,'" he said.