The Master Bootblack: 'I have no competition'

BOISE, Idaho (KBOI) - Even when the sun doesn't, Jim Walker shines-five days a week--just off the lobby of the Grove Hotel.

Picking up a shine cloth the way one might finger the Shroud of Turin--carefully--he says, "Somebody asked me once who's my competition. I said, 'I don't really have any.' I said, 'There's some other people who shine, but I don't have any competition.' That's why I got that 'Master Bootblack' on my card."

And he does. But it's a title he feels he's earned after 58 years in shoes.

"I started when I was 14, when I was growing up here in Boise," says Walker.

In those days, there were nearly a dozen shoeshine places in the city alone. Walker learned the bootblack trade to pick up a little summer spending money. In bigger cities, it was a familiar story.

Today you can surf the web and find photos a hundred years old, of young men like Walker, lugging their boxes and brushes in search of the next customer.

"Shoeshine, mister?" they would ask earnestly.

After all, even in the depths of the Depression a well-heeled customer could spare a dime. A shine today will cost you considerably more, but bootblacks still come up short.

Walker is wistful when he says, "You're not gonna get rich and you never could get rich shining shoes."

That is, except for the years he spent in Lake Tahoe, shining shoes for the rich and famous. Back then, Frank Sinatra was a regular.

When asked if Ol' Blue Eyes was a good tipper, Walker is quick with a reply.

"Always $100," he says, not making eye contact with a customer.

Dean Martin, he says, also tipped well. Elvis, too, when he held court at Harrah's. Walker recalls Presley's assistant bringing him the King's shoes.

The deliveries were the price Presley paid for being a huge star. A walk onto any casino floor guaranteed instant trouble. So when he wasn't onstage, he was holed up in his lavish suite.

Walker also remembers Charlie Daniels and his banana-colored western boots.

He looks up from a shine and says, "Charlie told me they cost $2,700, a lot in those days."

He ticks off more celebrity names like a letter carrier in Bel Air. But these days it's Walker who's the headliner at the Grove.

He is a principled man and a perfectionist, right down to the rags he uses to rub polish into the leather.

"I never pop my rags," he says rather proudly. "Because you break too many that way. All that popping-that's showboat. Not doing anything for the shine."

The shine. A Walker special is more than a quick wipe and there-ya-go. For one thing, he uses an array of products that aren't exactly off-the-shelf.

He gestures to a commotion of small glass jars under one of his elevated lobby chairs.

"I use a lot of Propert's and Meltonian," he says, referring to a pricey English boot crme.

And what he can do with a little dab of the stuff is nothing short of alchemy.

He then proceeds to rub a little color crme on a pair of well-worn cowboy boots. They desperately need his patented brand of TLC.

He gently rubs and then stands back to assess his work. The boots are practically smiling. Their owner sure is.

Then he stands and holds out a polishing rag for a ritual spraying. He wets the rag with the contents of a spray bottle.

But the liquid will forever be a mystery.

"That I can't tell you what it is," he says with a crooked grin. "If I tell you, I won't be able to let you out of the building."

The boots now finished and gleaming like a dance-hall floor, Walker turns his attention to a pair of running shoes tossed in a corner. He suddenly turns peevish.

"Look at this," he says with disdain. "Another generation, all shoes will be like that."

At that moment Matt Pluid passes Walker, as if on cue. Pluid, from Bonner's Ferry, is dressed for a day at the lake, complete with sun visor and flip-flops.

He looks sheepish when asked if he's ever had his shoes shined.

"Uh, no. I don't really wear dress shoes," says Pluid.

Walker waits until Pluid is out of earshot. And then he frowns.

"Exactly what I've been saying," he says in a half-whine.

"I think in another generation, you probably won't be able to find bootblacks unless you're in bigger cities like New York, or Chicago, or someplace."

For the moment, though, you can get an uptown shine in downtown Boise, courtesy of the man who plies his trade with an uncommon pride.

"I've always felt, if the good Lord wasn't too good to wash the feet of his disciples, then I'm not too good to shine somebody's shoes."

Spoken like the high priest of polish.