Shoeshiner takes job to car dealer's lots

Monday, July 14, 2008

FLORISSANT, Mo. -- It sounds too quirky to be true: a guy offering $5 shoeshines to car dealers in a beat-up yellow school bus.

But there Alvin Henderson is, driving his yellow rig onto a car dealer's blacktop one recent morning. His customers spend their days marooned on these asphalt islands, waiting for the phone to ring or the next customer to walk in the door. Still, their shoes need to shine. So four days a week Henderson drives from lot to lot, hitting about 20 dealerships in the St. Louis suburbs, a trip he has been making for 19 years.

In that time, a lot has changed for both shoeshiners and car dealers. It is an increasingly do-it-yourself and online world. Yet Henderson has remained a reliable constant, his weekly visits favored not only for the spotless spit shines but also for the banter and friendship. At some auto dealers, Henderson's yellow bus is a reassuring sign.

"In this business, it can get really depressing," said Scott Hamilton, manager at All-Star Dodge Chrysler Jeep in Bridgeton.

Then the shoeshine bus arrives.

Henderson parks at Johnny Londoff Chevrolet on a day when he will visit five dealerships and perform 21 shines. He slides down the windows to catch a breeze. He moves to the back, walking over green carpet where rows of seats once stood. He checks on the shine chair, which is really an office chair on a platform about 3 feet high. He has ample supplies of Fiebing's saddle soap and Kelly's Lynn stain polish.

"Let me shake the trees to let folks know I'm around here," he said.

Henderson, 50, has ways of drumming up business. He calls salesmen "cheapskates" if they balk at a shine. He glances repeatedly at their shoes until they cannot help but notice, as he did to one young salesman in black Steve Madden snakeskin boots.

Henderson started shining in 1989. A native of Yazoo City, Miss., he had moved to St. Louis a few years before and worked a series of jobs -- making wood pallets and supervising janitorial crews -- before finding himself unemployed.

He heard about a man named James Love who needed help with his mobile shoeshine business. Love, who was disabled, drove around in an old school bus because of its ample room. Love and Henderson ended up working together 12 years. Then Love retired. Henderson took over.

They catered mostly to car dealerships, but on Thursdays they also stopped outside the Anheuser-Busch brewery in Soulard. They shined the shoes of the security team, line workers and executives. But Henderson has not been back to the brewery in years, not since the retirement of many of his older clients -- the kind of men "who knew what to expect, who knew what a shoeshine was."

Now even his older clients are starting to wear less dressy shoes.

"Now, it is not about how you look anymore. It's about comfortability. It's about suede. It's about Rockports. It's about Hush Puppies," he said, offering the words "Hush Puppies" with disdain.

But Henderson presses on.

"This is kind of a dying art," he concedes. "It's all about change today. And change is good. But you just hate to see things get erased out."

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