The Shoe Shine Box
I got my shoe shine box from a cousin during the summer months of 1970. He knew I wanted to have one. I told him that there is an opportunity to earn money shining other people’s shoes. He promised that one day, he will give me a shoe shine box. And on that summer, he did!
Inside the shoe shine box was a shoe brush and a can with a little shoe polish left on it. I bought additional items to complete my shoe shine kit: a shoe brush, two packs of shoe dye or dyobos –one black, one red. I mixed these with water and put the solution in an empty medicine bottle. I also got a fresh can of shoe polish, two used toothbrushes and an old white cotton T-shirt.
I practiced with the shoes at home; first with the old ones, and later, with the relatively newer pairs. I simulated various types of grime or dirt a pair of shoes could have, and made sure I ended up with a clean and shiny pair of shoes. Only when I was very confident with my skill did I declare myself ready.
On my first two days as shine boy, I tagged along with Sammy – a neighbor who has plied the trade for more than a year. Sammy was my on the job trainer. He gave me pointers on how to approach customers and emphasized that I should converse with the customer while shining their shoes. I also learned from him how to set the price of shoe shine services by pricing levels based on a pre-agreed quality of polish : one application of shoe polish was 25 centavos; two to three applications would cost 50 centavos; and a charol (a wet-look finish) was at least one peso. We also charged a premium depending on how dirty the shoes and/or how bad the customer’s foot or socks smell!
As “payment” for his efforts at showing me some tricks of the trade, Sammy made me swear on the following: I will not poach on his regular customers, I will maintain the pricing levels of the shoe shine services; he can borrow shoe shine materials from me during emergencies; and, he can tell people that he taught me how to shine shoes.
For the next four years, I was a shoe shine boy during weekends and holidays! I was charging from a low of 25 centavos to a high of one peso per pair of shoes. I had my stable of regular customers. Some of them told me their life’s stories; a few shared to me their fears; and, quite a number talked about their dreams. Normally, I just listened. But when they asked for my opinion, I did not give them straight answers. I normally give my opinion by asking them what-if questions. Or, I share with them anecdotes of what another person did under similar circumstances. I was not the best shoe shine boy in the market, but a lot of customers looked for me when they want their shoes cleaned.
I also introduced my younger brothers to the ins-and-out of making money in the public market. Rey also braved the alleys of the market as a shoe shine boy for more than two years. But when the fuel crisis erupted, he shifted to selling kerosene on retail. Alan did not want to shine shoes. Instead, he sold fruits and other food products to passengers in the town’s bus terminal.
As a shoe shine boy I stayed in the public market during weekends. In doing so, I met and dealt with various types of people. By observing the actions and listening to the stories of the store owners and the commodity traders, I got a very good idea of how they manage their business: where they source their goods, their source of financial capital, and the margins they made.
From shining shoes, I earned around ten pesos on Saturdays; and fifty percent more during Sundays. That was a lot considering that in the early 70s, we could buy a bottle of soft drink plus a big piece of bread or a stick of banana cue for 25 centavos. To be sure, I earned more money from selling and attaching spikes to shoes, and from commodities and livestock trading. In the early seventies, the money I earned on weekends not only covered my day-to-day allowances and other needs, I was also able to share these earnings with my family and my siblings.
I still relish the opportunities that the shoe shine box has opened to me. In the years after my stint in the public market of my hometown, my playing field has expanded several folds. But the set of skills I learned during my shoe shine box days were all put to good use during my professional and business career.