Over 17 years after West Side writer John Fountain lamented an end to the craft of shoe shining in his New York Times column, James Cole quietly celebrated 50 years at his Shoe Shine King store at 338 N. Central Ave. in Austin.
“Just another day,” he said. “We’re open seven days a week.” On Sunday, he caters to ministers who stop in to get their shoes shined before church. The rest of the week he, his son Vernon and the rest of the longtime staff fix and shine all kinds of shoes — from sneakers to the spiffiest two-tone wingtips. The modest little store is just like an old-school barbershop, except customers include both men and women. Don Jackson, producer of the gospel Stellar Awards, is one of Shine King’s notable patrons.
Cole went to Marshall High School and started out as an entrepreneur, shining shoes on the street. He ran a second shoeshine shop at Madison and Kedzie, and a contracting business for 17 years at 5634 W. Chicago, specializing in roofing: “I watched my workers to make sure we did things right. A guaranteed roof is only as good as the person who puts it up.”
Over the years, he estimates, he’s trained around 60 percent of the city’s shoe shiners. Before they died, his mother and father both worked for him at the shop. He hired guys returning from prison who became reliable employees. He has no plans to retire; no one has stepped up to take over running Shoe Shine King. He lives eight blocks from the store and has always loved the Austin neighborhood, he said.
Cole owns the building and rents out sections to other shopkeepers. It’s in his best interest for them to succeed and pay rent, so when he was up to it, he’s served as security guard. A grocery in his building recently closed due to criminal activity—a trend lately on the West Side. He says police have not been as helpful as they should.