“Leather got pores in it, and if you don’t get those pores in that leather filled up with polish, it’s not gon’ shine like glass,” said Ernest Robinson, owner of The Shine King in Meridian, Mississippi.
The Shine King is a welcome reminder of old-style shoe shining, with its opened jars of half-used shoe wax and worn rags. The shop is nestled in historic downtown Meridian, across from Union Station. The small, red brick building could almost be completely overlooked if not paying close attention. Robinson takes great pride in his humble shop and the craft of shoe shining.
“I fill the pores up with wax, and that makes it easier to shine,” Robinson said. “And the way I fill it up with wax is I put a heavy coat of wax on it. Then I come back, and I melt it with the heat. They want a spit-shine shoe? I can do it right there.”
Robinson has been shining shoes since he was 11 years old in the 1960s. He started at Brown’s Newsstand in Meridian, working part-time after school shining shoes, delivering magazines and assisting with other duties.
“Anybody that came in during that time, I would have to stop what I was doing and go shine their shoes, Robinson said. “A shoe shine was 15 cents at that time, and I got the tip. It may have been a nickel or a dime.”
He learned all the basics of shoe shining as an apprentice of an older employee in Brown’s Newsstand. After gaining experience at the newsstand, Robinson spent much of his time in the military as an opportunity to improve the craft of shoe shining.
“When I was in the military, I never really shined anybody else’s shoes but my own,” Robinson said. “So, I just perfected the art of shoe shining while I was in the military. My boots used to be so shiny, I never had to pull guard duty.”
Robinson does not always spend his time shining shoes. He considers it a hobby and is only in the shop around his work hours. Robinson is a train attendant, with a four-day-on, four-day-off schedule. Around working and shining shoes, he spends time with family and works in his yard.
“I haven’t done this all the time. I’ve just been back and forth for the last 13 or 14 years here in this spot,” Robinson said. “I found this place, and I took it up. I saw that shoe shining was a dying art. There was no one in town shining shoes anymore.”
The Shine King is the only shop in Meridian that offers an authentic, hand-shine for leather shoes.
“Nobody wants to do it. Nowadays, it’s above them to shine a pair of shoes. Back in the 60s, that’s how people raised their families – off of shining shoes,” Robinson said. “That was a big thing back in the 60s. All the men went out on Fridays and Saturdays to get a hair cut and a shoe shine. Nobody does that anymore because the times have changed.”
Even so, Robinson’s business thrives in Meridian and serves those who appreciate an old-fashioned shoe shine. Robinson said his craft caters to local white-collar employees who work as doctors, lawyers, insurance agents and advertisers.
“Those are pretty much my people who come in and see me every week,” Robinson said. “This is what they like. They come in, and I give them a shine. They like the way I do my work.”
In his many years of shoe shining, Robinson has never considered it as more than a hobby and an art. For him, it is a form of enjoyment.
“It’s just something that I’ve always enjoyed doing. I like to keep my shoes clean, so it’s just something I like. Then, it’s got a small income behind it. I can still put a few dollars in my pocket,” Robinson said.
Chrishna Howard, Robinson’s granddaughter, said some of her earliest memories with her grandfather are in his shoe shine shop.
“I just know he’s been doing it a long time because me and my sister would come in after school, and he’ll be working,” Howard said. “I just like coming down here with my paw-paw while he’s shining shoes. It’s something that he’s good at, and he likes doing it.”
Shelia Robinson, Ernest Robinson’s wife, also said he just he loves what he does.
“I have told him why don’t he just close the shop down, but he wants to keep until after he retires. When he retires, he’ll have something to do. He works hard on these shoes,” Shelia said. “He likes shining shoes, so I just have to back him up. Plus, I get free shines on my boots.”
Robinson said he hopes to generate more business in The Shine King after he retires.
“I’m looking to generate more business after I come off the railroad. With me being here everyday, I can put more into it. I can network more,” Robinson said. “Hopefully, I can get someone that might want to take up the art.”
“I always have enjoyed shining shoes, and I don’t think I’ll ever give it up unless my arthritis gets too bad in my hands,” Robinson said. “It’s helped me stay busy. I’ve always gotten something out of it from the time that I started.”
Read the final published article in The Meridian Star.