Putting a shine on Washingtonians’ day

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Tony Vincent has worked at Washington, D.C.’s Union Station Shoe Shine for a decade. He says you can never underestimate the impact of a good shoeshine. 

“When it comes to appearance, people always say, ‘Oh I don’t care, I don’t care,’ he said. “Well the person hiring you might!”

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Appearances are important in this town, and shoes say a lot about a person. 

“It’s like cleaning your car and not washing the tires,” he said. “It’s just not a good look.”

Vincent said he’s had a lot of different jobs, but being a shoeshiner is by far the best. He picked up the art of shoeshining from his brother, who had been working at Union Station Shoe Shine. 

“It’s like being a bartender,” he said. “People tell you everything. They tell me about their family, their kids and their problems. Sometimes they even bring their kids with them.”

The art of shoeshining is not as prevalent as it once was. People walking through the Amtrak terminal at Union Station often stop and take pictures of the shoeshiners as if they are a tourist attraction. One thing is for certain though, leather footwear — whether it be riding boots for women or dress shoes for men — is definitely popular, expensive and requires maintenance. 

Customers turn shoeshining into a serious routine, like getting a haircut or a manicure. Not only does a shoeshine complete a professional look, it feels good too.

“This place is a safe haven,” he said. “People come here to relax.”

Over the past 10 years, Vincent has grown a very large and loyal customer base.

“Everywhere I go somebody recognizes me,” he said. “Some of my customers won’t let anyone else shine their shoes.”

Union Station Shoe Shine’s location on Capitol Hill and its cozy set-up between the E and F gates means they get “a lot” of government officials and businessmen. Vincent said he gets a lot of women too, but the majority of his customers are men.

“Instead of spending $7 or $10 to get their shoes shined, women just buy more shoes,” he said.

Vincent has polished his fair share of shoes worn by Hollywood and political celebrities. He has met Sidney Poitier, Jesse Jackson and Steve Harvey, and he said that Joe Biden used to be a regular before he became vice president. 

Nothing bothers Vincent more than seeing a man in a nice suit with “scuffed up” shoes. He said it doesn’t matter if you’ve got the experience and the credentials; completing your professional look with a shoeshine shows “personal character.”

Vincent has noticed that newscasters are often most in need of a shoe polish.

“Tom Brokaw had probably the worst shoes I have ever shined,” he said.

Vincent explained that a newscaster’s priority is from the waist up. Their feet are always hidden underneath a desk where there are lots of wires to scuff up the leather on a shoe.

Vincent said there are a lot of people who come to Capitol Hill as interns and don’t realize the importance of a polished look. Whenever he gets a newcomer, he always encourages them to maintain their shoeshining routine.

Union Station Shoe Shine offers a variety of services from the basic shoeshine to shoe repair, for all types of leathers and styles. Vincent said the cap toe shoe style is currently very popular among professional men. Depending on the service, a polish can cost anywhere from $7 to $30. And the effect is well worth the cost, Vincent says.

He recalled one of his customers from the Department of Homeland Security who was responsible for most of the departmental hiring. This person would always say that if he meets a potential employee and their shoes aren’t looking good, their resume automatically goes in “file 18,” aka the trash.

After working in this business for so long, Vincent still can’t stress enough how important a sharp appearance is.

Before becoming a shoeshiner, Vincent worked as a case manager for recovering addicts. He said the best advice he ever got was from a co-worker who said, “Always dress for your next job.”

After that, Vincent ditched his jeans and t-shirt for slacks, a tie and dress shoes. 

Vincent said that even though he has all the equipment and skill, he still prefers to pay someone else to shine his shoes.

“I like to get my shoes shined, too,” he said. “It feels good.”