If he isn’t Murfreesboro’s last standing shoe shine man, he’s amongst them.
At age 14, Willie Harris worked temporarily at shining shoes to earn spending money to negotiate his boyhood route in life through downtown Chicago.
At age 72, Harris is reliving his boyhood dream - a dream that touches hundreds of lives as he goes about his present-day business of putting a shine on shoes and boots of the region.
Since retirement, after serious health injuries and moving in 1990 to small-town Murfreesboro, Harris has resumed his childhood love for a profession that has all but disappeared from America’s societal landscape.
Meet one of Murfreesboro’s last active full-time shoe shine man.
“I don’t need to tote a mirror around,” testified longtime customer James Aaron of Bradyville. “I can see my face in the sheen left on my shoes after Mr. Harris does his magic.”
The “Shine Man” likes a pleased customer.
“I take pride in what I do,” said Willie as he brushed and stroked an expensive-looking pair of women’s equestrian riding boots. “It does my soul good to see the pleased expressions on the faces of customers, who take pride in their shoes and boots, and appearance in general.”
Willie set up shop in September 2011 appropriately at the Shoe Fixer shop near downtown Murfreesboro at 1004 Memorial Blvd. next door to O’Charley’s.
“I love what I do,” Willie said, as Rutherford County resident Donnie Dunlap dropped off a pair of shoes to be buffed and polished to a bright shine.
Dunlap must love what Willie does to his walking apparel, for he took the time, talent and materials to construct a special shoe shine rack - the focal point of business where Willie produces the legendary “pop-de-pop” sound of a finishing touch rag that’s customarily heard at a shoe shine stand.
It’s not just any old “shoe shine rack!”
“It’s one-of-a-kind shine rack,” Harris confirmed.
The rack that has traditional red-and-white stripes formerly seen on barber shop poles in a different era of Americana culture, when thousands of shine men flourished.
“I would operate out of my son’s barber shop here in Murfreesboro, but there’s just no room there to accommodate my operation,” Harris said. “Since I don’t have the traditional ‘shine chair, customer Dunlap’s shoe shine rack works great for me to hang customer shoes and boots on as I do my work. I really do appreciate his efforts to make the stand.”
So, instead of coming in and sitting up on a stand, while Harris applies the spit and polish, customers can drop off their shoes and boots to be picked up later at customer convenience.
“Some just take a seat and wait until I get their shoes polished,” he described.
“Shoe Fixer” shop owner Roger Burnett and Mr. Harris share a similar uniqueness.
“As far as we know, Roger is the only shoe cobbler (shoe/boot repairman) left operating in Rutherford County,” Willie testified.
“We think Mr. Harris is the last active shoe shine man left operating in the ‘Boro,” echoed business owner Burnett. “It seems to work well for our shoe-repair customers to have his shoe-shine service here handy as they drop off their foot wear.”
The shine man’s route in life from a big city to the slower-paced Mid-South has been circuitous.
He touches on his boyhood introduction to the shoe shining.
“At age 14, I noticed Max, a ‘shine man’ at a popular shoe-shine stand in Chicago, did not show up for work one day,” Willie described. “Since I needed some spending money of my own, I bolted back to home, and fashioned a flimsy home-made shoe-shine box.
“That was my first venture into the shoe shine business,” Harris traced back in time. “It worked, for I made some good spending money, especially for a 14-year-old boy.”
As a young man, he took up boxing as a hobby.
“I never lost an amateur boxing match,” he punched back in time. “I’ve followed professional boxing close down through the years.”
And shining shoes was not the only professional route taken by Harris, as he approached manhood.
Prior to opening his shop, he worked at Dollar General, following a fateful auto accident last decade that broke both knees and ankles.
While back in Chicago, he earned a college degree to be a radiology technician, plus worked stints in the city’s mass transit system and Chicago/Northwest Railroad.
“The only thing I miss about Chicago is the mass transit and its convenience,” Harris shared. “That’s about all I miss about the big city.”
A family man, Willie shared his love and adoration for his wife, Deloris.
“We’ve been married more than 50 years now, blessed with six children,” he said. “My wife, when she worked for a pizza company here back in the 1990s, was recognized as the entire county’s Consumer Champion of the Month by the Chamber of Commerce.”
Matt Oliver, who works at Shoe Fixit in the footwear repair department, describes what it’s like to share work space with the shine man.
“Willie is a joy to be around, a breath of fresh air,” Oliver noted as yet another shoe customer walked through the door.