The recent passing of Austin entrepreneur James Cole has left many reflecting on the impact Cole had on his community and how he redefined entrepreneurship on the West Side. Cole died July 11 at 78.
Known as the “Shoe Shine King,” Cole operated the Shine King store, 338 N. Central Ave., for nearly 60 years. Not only was his shop one of the few spots where West Side residents could kick back and relax, the shop was also a place of refuge and resources for many in the community.
“Mr. Cole was a pioneer on the Wests Side for small businesses,” said Khalilah Johnson, the executive director of the Austin Chamber of Commerce.
“I remember when his first shop was over on Madison and Pulaski,” she recalled. “We would walk up there every weekend and watch the people going in to get their shoes shined, but it was also so much more. It was a gathering place to talk about the things going on in the community.”
James Bowers, Cole’s longtime friend and attorney, echoed Johnson, recalling that Cole’s shop was a space for many young people in the community.
“If you needed a job, Cole would hire you and if he couldn’t hire you, he’d help you find some work. He was that kind of guy,” Bowers said.
Bowers said that there were times that, in lieu of payment for his legal services, Cole would pay the attorney in resources.
“When I first moved to Austin [nearly 20 years ago], I bought one of the old mansions in the neighborhood that was a fixer-upper,” Bowers said. “Cole sent some guys my way to help with roofing and the odds and ends jobs I needed done around the space. It was thoughtful. He did stuff like that all the time.”
In addition to owning Shoe Shine King, Cole also owned various properties around the West Side that he would rent to tenants.
“Mr. Cole had more entrepreneurial sense in his little finger that most people have in their entire body, said Bowers. “When Dr. King died and all the white people fled in terror from the West Side, he started buying property. He was good at it and he hung onto those properties, providing affordable housing for hundreds of tenants and being one of few landlords who actually cared about their properties.”
For others in the community, Cole’s entrepreneurial spirit inspired them to pursue their own dreams of owning a business.
“Back in my younger years, I saw this Black man [Cole] opening up shops and stuff and thought, ‘If he can do it, shoot, I can do it too,’” said Brenda Byman, a lifelong Galewood resident. “I opened up a laundromat on Central and Madison that was there a few years.”
Byman said that, as she grew out of the laundromat and wanted to try her hand at real estate, Cole was a mentor for her when it came to managing property.
“He let me manage one of his buildings to get my feet wet,” said Byman.
“He gave people a way to believe in themselves by believing in himself,” said Bowers. “In his mind, there was nothing he couldn’t do. And if you knew Cole, you knew that to be true.”
The family of James Cole asks that anyone interested in paying tribute to his legacy make donations to the following scholarship funds:
- John Marshall High School Alumni Association | 3250 W. Adams St., Chicago, IL 60624
- One Lord-One Faith M.B Church | 312 N. Lavergne Ave., Chicago, IL 60651
- Greater St. John Bible Church | 1256 N. Waller Ave., Chicago, IL 60651