Keith Bryant’s first shift working as a shoeshiner on the Las Vegas Strip more than 20 years ago produced about $150 in tips over three hours.
He loved the buzz of activity and interacting with visitors at the Sahara on this weekend night and was hooked on the profession. He would follow in his father’s footsteps into the industry.
“People sometimes will play with me and ask if I’ll shine what they are wearing, but I’ll shine anything,” said Bryant, a longtime Select Shoe employee. “I’ll do a leather wallet or a belt, too. If it’s imitation leather, that doesn’t matter, I’ll do it. I’ll do what I have to do and adapt to anything.”
Part of the decline is because the convention industry and international travel is still recovering from pandemic closures. For instance, visitors from Australia often wear cowboy boots they liked to have shined up, Bryant said.
Bryant, a Las Vegas native, spends much of his time at a rented stand inside a men’s room near the Aria lobby or at a stand at New York-New York.
Select Shoe also rents space at the Las Vegas Convention Center, Golden Nugget and Venetian Convention and Expo Center. Another company, Goodfellows Shoeshine & Accessories, is in a number of properties, including McCarran International Airport.
Shelley Bonner Carson, owner of Goodfellows, said business has been slow lately for her company, too. In addition to its stands at McCarran — at the C and D concourses of the airport — Goodfellows has space at several Strip resorts, and at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.
“We survived COVID-19 and we’re still doing shoes,” Bonner Carson said. “Summers are usually terrible for us, partly because people are very casual, wearing sandals and tennis shoes a lot. We hope conventions come back in a big way this fall and in 2022.”
Bonner Carson said there’s still interest in the service. That’s evidenced by the fact that representatives from Resorts World recently reached out about renting out some space for a shoeshine stand, she said.
Everyone seems to be hustling for customers.
If Bryant spots someone wearing shoes that need to be shined, he immediately speaks up. Take Christopher Helmick, who was in town from Michigan for the Society of Corporate Compliance and Ethics conference at the Aria and wearing a pair of leather dress shoes.
As Helmick glanced at Bryant’s stand — which consisted of two customer chairs and two drawers that housed everything from a horsehair brush to various cans of shoe polish, wax and leather conditioner products — the shiner went to work.
“Would you like a shine?” Bryant asked.
Helmick did. The conference represented his first substantial travel outing since the pandemic started. He wanted to look good for it.
Helmick’s shine took about five minutes and cost $12.
Scott Hansen, owner of Select Shoe, said business is slow, but he doesn’t think it will be a final blow to the industry because “there will always be people out there who care about their appearance.”
“When you meet someone, you look at their hand first, because you reach out to shake it, and you do a once-over on them that starts from the shoes on up,” he added.
Hansen said the shoeshine business in Las Vegas, which has long depended on convention business, started its decline in the recession following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
“Up until 9/11, we were going gangbusters,” Hansen said. “After that, flights got canceled, conventions got canceled and when they came back, people started to dress down. Conventiongoers haven’t changed that since. People used to always wear suits at a show, but they don’t do that nearly as much.”
When he started in the business in the 1990s, Hansen said most customers wore either dress shoes or cowboy boots.
“We do athletic shoes, suede, oil tan leathers, we do it all,” Hansen said. We’ve become a throw-away society. We’re also, as a society, going more casual in general.
Shiners also work on shoes dropped off by guests, which includes items from celebrities and athletes.
And, now, during the downturn, he’s eager to add more memories to a lengthy career. “I’ll do what I have to do,” Bryant said. “I’m just hoping conventions come back strong because that’s how I eat.