These Men Are Keeping The Dying Art Of Shoe Shining Alive In Kansas City

Dec 10, 2015

If you've ever been to the Kansas City International Airport, chances are you've seen Rick Evans.

His large wooden chair sits in Terminal B — between the Boulevard Brew Pub and the Delta ticket counter. 

Before becoming a shoe shiner, Rick Evans worked in sales. After getting laid off, he wanted to avoid unemployment and started his own business.
Credit Jennifer Cotto / KCUR 89.3

Evans spends most of his day sitting on a small stool next to his chair waiting for customers.

On a good day, he may see as many as 10. 

"I meet people from all walks of life," he says. "Everybody has a story. It's so neat to hear how people get their jobs, and the ordeal of going through things."

Evans, who's been shining shoes at the airport for more than six years, is one of the few shoe shiners left in Kansas City. 

In the 1940s and 1950s, shoe shiners could be found in countless places across the city. One of the biggest hubs was Union Station.  That's where a new permanent exhibit sits near the northwest elevators in the main hall — in the exact place where shoe shiners worked day in and day out —  serving thousands of travelers that traveled to and from Kansas City. Henry Lyons of Olathe chapter of the NAACP says they also served as unofficial city guides. "They knew were things were at," Lyons said. "If you were a young person and you were going to come to Kansas City and you wanted to know where the action was, well, they could tell you where the action was in Kansas City." Today, if you want to get your shoes polished, you'll most likely need to drop them off at a shoe repair shop. But there are a few spots, besides the airport, where you can still sit in a chair and get an old-fashioned polish.

One of those places is Gates Bar-B-Q  on Emmanuel Clever II Boulevard. That's where you'll often find a man greeting customers in the lobby.

M.W.K., who declined to give his real name, says he started shining shoes in the 1970s when he was in the U.S. Army.  One day, he was polishing his shoes and one of his friends asked if he could teach him how to do it. Since then, polishing has been a job to fall back on. "I like the people," M.W.K. says. "I could stay here for weeks and not make a dime and still enjoy myself."Just to put that into perspective, he says in an average week he will see five customers.  Further south in the metro, you'll find DeJuan Bonds. He has been a barber since 1996.

When he decided to open his own barber shop in Overland Park, Kansas, he wanted to have a full-service shop — including a shoe shine stand.

DeJuan Bonds says he wanted to include a shoe shine chair in his barber shop to give it an old school feel.
Credit Jennifer Cotto / KCUR 89.3

"Barber shops were shaves and shines, and I wanted to bring it back to the old school barber feeling that we have here," he said.

Outside of shoe-shining, Bonds is known for some of his big-name clients, including players with the Kansas City Royals and the Kansas City Chiefs. But the vast majority of his shoe-shine clients are corporate white-collar workers and mostly men. He has had some younger clients pay to have their sneakers cleaned, however. If you happen to find a shoe shine chair, spending the time to polish your shoes can prove to be a good investment.  "There are people that spend as much on their shoes as they do on their suit," says Evans at the airport. "A good pair of shoes will last you 10-12 years easy if you just take care of them." 

Jennifer Cotto is a Community Engagement Intern for KCUR 89.3. You can follow her on Twitter @newsproducerjen.