What is a bootblack? I get asked this question a lot and here is my long answer:
It is very difficult to try to summarize a bootblack in less than a novel or series of books even. Here is a very brief explanation, with my apologies to bootblacks everywhere for all that I have to leave out.
At the most basic level, a bootblack is sometimes compared to a shoeshine, like the ones you see at the airport or in some malls. This is like comparing Sixlets to Ghirardelli; both may be chocolate but one is much higher quality than the other. Here is a partial list of what makes bootblacks “higher quality” than shoeshines.
Both will shine your shoes while you wear them and both will likely engage you in conversation as they do so. For a bootblack, leather care is never a “job”; it is a passion. There is a love for the leather and also for what the leather stands for and as they do the shine, they will commonly ask and learn about what the leather means to you. Are you a biker and these boots protect your feet as you ride? Are you military and if so what branch etc? Are you someone who identifies as Leather?
Most bootblacks are Leather. Leather is a subculture that goes back at least as far as 70’s when some members of the gay community began to represent themselves as even more manly than other men. This is a very sad part of our history to me as I wish that there was never any question as to someone’s worth due to their sexual orientation, but it is also a very positive thing because of what it became. Leather became a code of honor and a way to signify that you were proud to be what you were and who you were, even when society at large rejects you. Today, the Leather community has expanded and includes many people of differing sexual orientations and kinky folk. I myself am Leather both as a bootblack and as a slaveheart.
For a bootblack, leather care is done while the person is wearing leather and it is not restricted to boots (despite our name). I have cared for dresses, coats, pants, skirts, cuffs, collars, leashes, chaps and yes even boots. There is a love, dedication and intimacy bootblacks bring to their craft. We love the leather and it shows in how we care for it. We are proud to serve our communities and we donate our skills when caring for leather.
Often, bootblacks are working events as part of a fundraiser. I have helped raise money for travel funds, food banks, local support groups and one shelter. We work only for tips and each client decides how much they want to tip us for what we do. Sometimes the tips are for me and I use them to restock my kit, buy new supplies and to keep a spare can or two of Hubbard’s around.
Bootblacks teach. We help others learn how to care for leather too. Sometimes those people also become bootblacks, other times they just want to be able to treat and care for and extend the life of their own leathers. When we teach, we commonly end up giving new bootblacks products so that they can start their own kits too. (did I mention always wanting to keep extra cans on hand? Now you know why). Bootblacks are also friendly and a tightly knit community within the larger communities we work in. We each love leather as well as Leather. And our love creates a bond that others simply cannot understand. When bootblacks get together, even if they are competing with each other for titles, they help each other. There was one competition where the airlines had lost the luggage of one of the competitors. This included his entire bootblacking kit! All the other bootblacks at the event asked him what he needed and used and went to their kits and started pulling out supplies of every sort and made sure that he had a full kit with everything he needed to compete. Even those who were competing “against” him pulled things from their kits for him.
Bootblacks are keepers of history. We learn stories like the one I just shared and we share them and store them. It is part of our history and part of our communities. As bootblacks, we learn so much of the past from our clients. We learn how the Leather movement began, where it has been and where it is going. We share our joy and struggles with our clients as they share theirs with us.
If you have never had a bootblack care for your leather, please don’t hesitate to ask me when you see me. I usually have my kit with me, even when I am not going to a Leather event. I will be glad to let you have a taste of what a bootblack does when caring for your leather so that you can judge for yourself the difference between a bootblack and a shoeshine.
It is my honor and privilege to be a part of the bootblack community. I know many of my friends both within the Leather community and in other communities I am part of are supporting me as Southwest Bootblack this year. If you have any questions for me on what it is I do and why, please do ask me. So please, ask me about bootblacking, about Leather and about lifestyle and passions.