Thursday, October 06, 2011

A Blogging Birthday


The year has been slipping by so quickly that an important (at least to a few) milestone almost was neglected.  This is the fifth anniversary of the Gabbygeezer blog.  It started back in 2006 with, of all things, a little story about how it started.  Since then, 300 little stories have appeared, discounting a dozen or so that defy classification as stories, or much of anything else.

Which story generated the most favorable comments?  Hands down it was “Give Yourself a Proper Sendoff,” referenced in my profile on the right-hand column of this page.  That story describes why each of us should write our own obituary, and how we can do it to maximize self-aggrandizement and still be truthful. It uses my obituary (now somewhat out of date) as an example.  Most of the commentators said the story left them laughing, or at least mildly amused.

Which of the 300 stories attracted the most readers?  That is impossible to determine.  But one story was republished several times. The story repeated here, of my business venture in my hometown of Tomahawk, Wisconsin, first appeared as a Gabbygeezer post early in 2006.  It soon was published again in the Tomahawk Leader newspaper. Like the obituary tale and 165 others, it then appeared in my memoir, “Days With The Dads,” in 2008. Shortly thereafter, the Tomahawk Historical Society included it as part of a book it published. 

Here’s the story, once again seeking a few more readers:


A Very Small Business

As small businesses went in Tomahawk, Wisconsin, mine had to be one of the smallest. And as business owners went, at age 10, I was probably one of the youngest.

In the summer of 1946, Billy “Barrel” Schmidt and I were hanging around my dad’s tailor shop voicing the usual complaint of youth that there was nothing to do. Barrel’s uncle Louie, who ran the Central Drug Store in front of my dad’s shop, suggested we do something useful and start up a shoe shining business to make a little money.

We thought that was a pretty good idea. My dad found a shoeshine box somewhere, bought us a few supplies, and we were in business. The partnership lasted only a couple of weeks. Barrel decided going swimming at Crystal Lake and other typical Tomahawk summer activities beat heck out of work. He left me as the sole proprietor of the business.

One of the group of downtown businessmen who met every morning for coffee at Rouman’s Restaurant told my dad he thought the Hotel Tomahawk once had a shoeshine stand in the lobby. Sure enough, it was in storage at the hotel. Dad got it for me, and I hauled it out in front of Central Drug every morning, ready for business.

My only advertising was two cardboard signs attached to the arms of the chair. They read: “Shoe Shine 15 cents, other shoe free.”

This postcard showed me at rest

When business at the stand was slow, which was often, I toted the shine box to the local barber shops (I think there were three in those days) looking for customers. My recollection is that the only shop where I did much business was Charlie O’Rourke’s. That’s where I got my hair cut, and Mr. O’Rourke returned the favor by trying to gently persuade the men awaiting their turn in his chair to let me shine their shoes.

I think my dad suggested my other regular “house call.” If my mom had found out about it, the business would have ended right then and there. On Friday nights, Dad worked until 9 p.m. so Mom thought I was tending to business at my stand until we came home together. Actually, I was at Scorch’s Bar with my shine box. Business there was great, often netting me $2 or $3 for a couple of hours work—big money in those days for a little kid.

At 15 cents a customer, making that kind of cash depended on how much beer was flowing at Scorch’s (usually quite a lot) and some help from my friends.

My friends were two single ladies who worked at the A&P Store and always showed up at Scorch’s about 6:30 on Friday nights. They sort of adopted me, and since the males at the bar were trying to adopt them, they convinced a lot of drunks to get shoe shines—and woe to him who didn’t include a tip in the payment. One slightly absent-minded, or more likely very inebriated, guy paid me to shine his shoes twice in the span of 10 minutes!

I also did some “carry out” business. The best customers were Myron Veith and “Bev” Beverson, who owned The Gift Box across the street from my stand. On Saturday mornings, they left the door to their upstairs apartment unlocked and set out a half dozen pairs of shoes for me. I carried them across the street, shined them up, and took them back.

Another regular customer was Terry Small, who worked at the Quality Meat Market owned by his parents. Terry always dropped off two pairs of shoes for my attention, also on Saturdays. This was easy to recall because Terry was a very big man. His shoes were size 13 EEE. However, he always paid 25 cents a pair, so I didn’t complain about needing to use extra polish and elbow grease.

I worked all summer and occasionally in the fall after starting the seventh grade. Then work got a little old, and in the spring playing baseball was a lot more attractive than popping shoeshine rags and wielding brushes. I sold the stand and my supplies for $5 to Bob Gilley, an older man with some physical handicaps. Mr. Gilley shined shoes at the stand in the entryway of Nick’s Casket Factory on Wisconsin Avenue for quite a few years. He, however, was not known to solicit business in barbershops or bars.

Photographer Claude Venne gave my business a small measure of fame when he sneaked up on me one day when I was taking one of my frequent breaks, reading a comic book and eating a popsicle. Venne made his photo into postcards, which he sold at the Tomahawk Drug Store across the street with some other local scenes he had snapped. He had a note on the shoeshine card display that said something like, “Business is lousy, ain’t it?”

Business wasn’t too lousy. In addition to paying for popsicles, I saved nearly $100 from my summer’s work 60 years ago. I still had the money in the Bradley Bank seven years later to help pay for my first year at the University of Wisconsin. In those days, tuition for one semester at UW was $90.

* * * * * * * * *

Five years from now, I’ll rerun the most-republished little story from the previous five years. That’s a promise.

4 comments:

Sightings said...

I'm impressed at how industrious you were as a young man shining shoes outside the bar. I'm even more impressed with how industrious you are as an older man, blogging for ... five years now! But what I'm MOST impressed with? Those four holes in one!

schmidleysscribblins,wordpress.com said...

Loved this story.

I can hear the twice-shined drunk when he gets home and his wife says "Where have you been?" "Getting my shoes shined" and sure enough they looked great.

Dianne

Alan G said...

Well, first and foremost - Happy Blogiversary!!

Enjoyed the story and thought the sign verbiage was especially clever. Especially given your young age at the time.

I can remember myself once entertaining a career in shoe shining but just never was that industrious in my younger days. The closest I ever got to finding fame in the shoe polish business was when I killed a number of tadpoles by dumping them in a jar of diluted liquid shoe polish and turning it in as a "science fair project". You can probably pretty much guess the grade I got for that!

JHawk23 said...

A good story of the good old days. Congratulations - five years is a real milestone.