When Tosh Washington was 9 years old, he had a miniature shoe shine box he used to make a little extra money at the nearby Baptist church.
“That was my little light hustle,” Washington says. “The Baptists liked their shoes looking nice.”
Thirty years later, he picked up the hobby again and turned it into a job. “I tell all lawyers when I see them, ‘Oh, you look so nice. But [there’s just] one thing wrong. Your shoes. Your shoes don’t match your clothes!’”
Washington’s workshop, in a strip mall on Branch Street in Middleton, is homey. There’s a small TV, a couch and table, a few chairs, cabinets full of supplies, machinery and of course, dozens of pairs of shoes. From cherry red to dark burgundy to silky suede, there are shoes on almost every surface. Washington apologizes for the mess, but emphasizes that all shoe places are messy, it’s the nature of the trade.
Washington, 74, was born in Lambert, Mississippi, before moving to Missouri as a child. He grew up in a working-class family. His father worked as a farmer by day and sheriff by night. “I used to get out of school and drive the tractor until 1 a.m.” says Washington. “And then I’d go home and wake up the next morning, feed the chickens, hogs and pigs, and go back to school.”
He’s been working hard ever since. After moving to Milwaukee and studying to be a machine operator at Milwaukee Area Technical College, Washington found odd jobs in foundries and in contracting work before moving to Madison in 1991.
He began working as a bar manager at Nakoma Golf Club, where he also supervised the shoe-shining area. It was then that he began running an ad in the newspaper to promote his shoeshining sideline.
Word spread. Washington started getting invitations from businesses to set up a stand in their offices to shine shoes. He now mainly works in his shop.
On this late September day Washington is working on an order for employees of Bankers’ Bank, seven pairs of brown, black and red dress shoes. He typically finishes shining a pair of shoes within three days. “I like to take my time, and when I buff it in, I want it buffed in where it’ll last,” Washington says. His shines last a month.
There’s a shoeshine chair in Washington’s office, but it’s just for show. No one is coming to his shop for a shoe shine.
Washington uses two large machines that he bought 20 years ago in Chicago to buff shoes. Sometimes he will spend hours getting that perfect shine, though it usually takes about 20 to 25 minutes. Shoeshining soothes him — he listens to iHeart’s rhythm and blues station or watches Netflix while working. “I kick back and relax,” Washington says. “I ain’t going nowhere. I just take my time.”
Washington picks up a burgundy shoe and begins the shining process, stuffing it with paper so that the shoe doesn’t wrinkle while he’s shining. He fills up a water bucket and grabs a rag to wipe the shoe down.
If the shoe’s scuffed, he’ll use a special polish. Washington has two large cabinets full of “every kind of polish you could ever need.” After shining shoes for 30 years, he can take a quick look at a pair of shoes and know what color to use.
Washington pauses to put on his glasses, then begins buffing the shoe. He buffs it, gives it a real good look, puts more polish on it, lets it set, and then buffs it again. He’s committed to the shine. Once he’s buffed the shoe too many times to count, he wraps the shoes in plastic so they won’t bump together, and he’s done.
Washington will drop off a pair of shoes for $15 or customers can pick them up from his workshop. He loves shoe shining because he’s a “big talker” and loves meeting new people.
Washington has seen fewer customers since the pandemic, when people started wearing more sneakers and other leisure shoes. “All I’m trying to do is reach the public and let them know I’m here,” Washington says. “A lot of people don’t know that people do shine shoes. I’m the only one in town.”
Some people have been coming to Washington for their shines for more than 20 years. He’s seen every type of shoe, even with holes in the bottom. If a shoe is damaged, he sends customers to Cecil’s Shoe Repair on the west side, a shop he has worked with for years.
“Shoe shining is still just as fun for me as when I was a kid,” says Washington. “The first thing I do when I see someone with a suit on is look down at their shoes, it’s automatic.”
As for the future, Washington plans to keep on shining shoes. “I hope I can grow,” Washington says. “I hope more people will bring more shoes in.”