April 9, 2018

Doc Star of the Month: Master Shoeshiner Kevin Tuohy, Stacey Tenenbaum's 'The Art of the Shine'

Courtesy of Independent Lens.

One of the most surprising and uplifting docs I caught on the fest circuit last year, Stacey Tenenbaum's The Art of the Shine showcases shoeshiners from New York to Toronto, and from Tokyo to Sarajevo, where the profession is alternately an artisanal craft, a way to make a buck, a meditative art, a healing practice, and a means of connecting with one's fellow man. 

Documentary is thrilled to have had the opportunity to speak with one longtime practitioner of the shine, Kevin Tuohy, founder of A Shine & Co.—soon to be rebranded The Shoeshine Guild—whose master craftwork you can experience for yourself on your next fly through NYC. (Swing by the Delta terminal at LaGuardia.)

How did you meet Stacey? Did you set any ground rules for the shoot—or did she just come and go with her camera and crew when she was in New York?

Kevin Tuohy: Stacey found our website, and we met at Chelsea Market. We'd already had two other people start documentaries, and either disappear or stop filming. But I thought, This person looks like she's going to get it done!

There was nothing off-limits for us. I'll talk about anything! The filming went quickly and efficiently—about four days of shooting in total. She had a great crew with her. They fit right in. And she really cared about getting our story right, and showed a lot of respect and love for the craft.

Before making the film, were you aware that there was such a diverse global community of shiners out there? I was surprised by the range of cultural acceptance for the profession—from Bolivia, where shiners hide their faces to avoid the stigma attached to the job, to Tokyo, where at one high-end shop, champagne is served during the shine.

I've met shiners from around the world—by the way, to us professionals, "shoeshiner" is one word, not two! I make a point to find them and get a shine, or just introduce myself whenever I'm traveling. Shiners also email me for shoeshine and business experience and advice—from Seattle, to Ghana, to New Zealand. It's exciting to see other shiners grow and evolve, and to be a part of a global community.

Since you started your company over two decades ago, I'm wondering how the business has changed over the years. I noticed it's becoming more hip, at least on the coasts, these days—evidenced by the fact that you even have an outlet have an outlet inside the LaGuardia Airport.

In the 23 years I've been shining, the industry has become more chic and upscale in some circles. More customers see the benefit of investing in good shoes, and keeping them conditioned and polished—some to the extent we call "OCD shoe snobs." These guys are so obsessed with having the most perfectly polished pair of shoes that they ruin them by watching YouTube shoeshine tutorial videos, rubbing the finish off and damaging the leather because they want to do it themselves. Not everyone can be a professional shoeshiner. We get a lot of "fixit" work from them. Anyone can shine shoes in theory, but that doesn't mean they know what they’re doing or are able to do it well.

This film is filled with so many revelations for those of us with no experience of the shoeshining profession. I'll admit, I've never even had any footwear shined. Personally, I'd never thought of shoeshining as an artisanal craft—let alone a spiritual calling. Knowing that your background also includes serving a tour in the Middle East after 9/11 with the US Army, I'm wondering if you see these two aspects of your life as interrelated.

Definitely! Art, service and sobriety are all integral parts of my lifestyle. Shoeshining is an art, a service and a calling, but not to everyone—just like the Army! I always wanted to be a comic book artist, and I've been in the service industry most of my life in one form or another.

What's special about shining someone's shoes is that you're showcasing your artistry, showmanship, expertise, a level of customer service and especially joy. That's a lot to reflect to a customer in 10 to 15 minutes—being of service through my love of the craft, regardless of their station or class. Shine perfection, free reflection!

You've dubbed you and your colleagues the "sober shoeshine gang," since you and your hires are all recovering alcoholics. And the film also features a shoeshiner in Toronto, Vincent, who similarly uses the job as a form of therapy. What is it about shoeshining that lends itself to recovery? And do you have any plans to introduce your profession to institutions that serve others in need of healing—and jobs?

Actually, only half of the staff is sober, and it's not a requirement to work with us. I think that serving others can be therapeutic to anyone—to forget about yourself while focusing on someone else’s needs is wonderful!

As far as being recovered alcoholics, our therapy is practicing The Twelve Steps daily, and the shoeshine stand is a place where we can use them in coping with our individual issues as we navigate living sober. Most jobs won't let you leave or take a break if you get upset, depressed or angry, or need to write or meditate if you’re too stressed out or tired. We do. I've spoken at veterans' hospitals and recovery centers. We're also veteran and women-owned.

My hope is to hire more alcoholics, more women and more veterans. I'd love to hire anyone who loves people, loves working with their hands—and loves shoes!

The Art of the Shine airs Monday, April 9 on PBS' Independent Lens.

Lauren Wissot is a film critic and journalist, filmmaker and programmer, and a contributing editor at both Documentary and Filmmaker magazine. Her work can also be regularly read at Salon, Bitch, The Rumpus and Hammer to Nail. Currently, she serves as the international features programmer at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival.

Tags: