Riding on a smile and a shoeshine

On Saturday afternoons, our 13-year old neighbor Henry loads up his vintage shoeshine kit, straightens his dapper bow tie and heads downtown.

He sets up shop outside on mild summer days, inside of late, and spends a couple of amiable hours in earnest labor, bringing worn out shoes to life.

He chats easily as he buffs, his slim hands moving briskly across tired leather, with a soft rag older than he.

Times stands still for a little while as Henry works, and people passing by do too. They gather around him as though they’re watching a play, and Henry pleasantly acknowledges them with a quick nod and a grin when he pauses for a moment to check a worn spot, or to switch his polishing rag for a brush.

Henry is a shoeshine boy and there aren’t many like him in this fast-paced, one-click-shopping, throw-it-away, order-on-line world.

He learned from his grandfather, Tom Snodgrass. They practiced in the basement of the Snodgrass home.

Tom taught Henry key skills like patience and polish, appreciation for fine leather and the discipline to restore it. Eventually, Tom gave Henry the shoeshine kit he’d used his whole life.

“I used to have to shine my shoes every Saturday, because I’d beat them up during the week and you can’t show up to church on Sunday unless your shoes are spit-shined and polished” Tom said.

I met Tom on Saturday when I popped into Joseph’s Shoes so Henry could shine my salt-stained black boots.

Tom watched with pride as Henry worked, and we chatted a bit.

Here’s the thing about an old-fashioned shoeshine: You leave with boots that look better than they did the day you bought them, and with an understanding that, as fragile as it is, life still rolls so much more sweetly with some strong elbow grease.

That’s the real beauty of a fresh shine.

And that’s the legacy of a special grandfather to a very cool 13-year old boy.

Henry and his grandfather
Meet Tom Snodgrass and his grandson Henry Ptacek, and note the spiffy footgear on both. They’re two classy guys with an appreciation for quality.
Doc Holliday
Henry was shining Tom’s shoes when I arrived, under the watchful eye of “Doc Holliday” in the Joseph’s Shoes store window.
Henry at work
When he’s not shining shoes, Henry is a straight-A student and a gifted athlete who plays basketball and baseball.
Henry polishing
Henry shines with insight and care. I highly recommend a visit.
Henry buffing
I took pictures as he worked on my boots, to distract myself from how embarrassingly beat up my poor boots were.
Before and after
Here they are, the salty before boot on the left and the better-than-new boot on the right.
Henry and the peanut gallery
A crowd gathered as Henry worked…
Henry and the pudgy baby
…including this cute little guy, which made me wonder if Tom’s spit-shined legacy might grow beyond Henry and out into the world all around.
Henry's like new buff and shine
Consider this a ringing endorsement for Henry’s Like New Buff and Shine.
The shoeshine kit
This is the big wooden shoeshine kit Tom passed on to Henry.


6 thoughts on “Riding on a smile and a shoeshine

  1. What a beautiful write-up featuring Henry and honoring Tom! Glad you got those boots taken care of 😉

  2. This is a beautiful telling of a very special story. Tom has an incurable form of cancer so the recording of this is all the more precious for him and for our family. Thank you so much for taking the time to get to know our remarkable grandson. Tom actually made that shoe shine box in a high school shop class so it is 58 years old!

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