I had a minor-ly interesting experience last Thursday. I had to go into central London for a meeting and chose to travel on the Chiltern Line from Harrow on the Hill to Marylebone. Being early we stopped for a coffee. It was then that I noticed, in a corner of the station something I've not seen for many a long year: a shoe shine. So of course I had to do something I've only ever done once or twice before when quite young and have my shoes shined.
Well they did need it!
Apart from the fact he was there, what interested me were two things.
First he wasn't the old-style shoe shine with a wooden box, a mat and a stool. He had a sort of booth affair which meant the young man had a better working environment as he could sit in relative comfort while I perched on a high seat as well. It felt a bit unsafe as the super-sized me was perched some way off the ground on what felt like quite a small bolster. But with feet on the foot-rests it was actually fine and a fine view as well.
The other interesting thing was that he had three grades of service: basic at about £2.50, a better one at about £4.50 and the luxury job at £5.99. I went for the luxury job, as I felt my shoes needed the extra nourishment and they got several rounds of polish and buff. The job took about 5 or 6 minutes — nice time for Noreen to finish her coffee.
I remember the old shoe shines in London in the 1950s. Indeed I remember my father telling me about them and taking me to experience having my shoes shined, I think by an old boy on Liverpool Street Station, when I was probably about 8 or 10. By the time I remember shoe shines they were mostly old men (often war veterans). They were all real old characters, often dispensing worldly wisdom, racing tips or Stock Market predictions. But they were a dying breed as there weren't many boys learning the trade and even fewer people prepared to pay for their services. Essentially they had died out by the 1970s to be replaced by inferior mechanical brushing machines in hotels and offices.
But they're making a come-back albeit often with upmarket stands/booths. I first noticed one a few years back in Heathrow Terminal 1 and they now seem to be creeping back into central London — there are certainly shoe shines in Leadenhall Market and Burlington Arcade — although I can't see them becoming as ubiquitous on street corners as they obviously were before the war.
I don't recall the cost of a shoe shine in the fifties (one shilling comes to mind, but I'm sure someone will be along to correct me), nor if they had several differently-priced offerings, but the cost of the modern version seemed eminently reasonable.