Michał Breś is a dancer and a shoe lover based in Poznań. During GoAt Swing Exchange 2017 I had an opportunity to listen to a story about his passion – shoe care. His company Pucybut (“shoe-shine boy” in Polish) is one of a few Polish spots that maintain the tradition and profession of bootblacks. During our conversation Michał tells a story about the birth of his company as well as how fascinating shoe-shining can be.
How did you become a bootblack?
I’ve been passionate about shoes and shirts since I can remember and I enjoy shining shoes. Every Sunday I take all the pairs of shoes I own – dirty or shining – and polish them once again. In September 2016 my friends and I took a trip to Warsaw for a festival Retro Weekend Summer’s End. Before the social we were drinking beer and talking. I mentioned that I would love to become a shoe-shine boy and a question “why not?” appeared. When we got back Ewa Siwy gave me a call and she became a brain in our little idea. I provided my hands and we started the business. I bought a box of shoe cosmetics with a stand for feet, took a chair and hit the street to check if anyone would be interested. It was winter, we put a board with the information that if somebody likes our service they can pay for it. People stopped by and enjoyed it. That is when Ewa contacted me again and asked if we want to do it. In December we have already had a signed contract with Stary Browar but we didn’t have a stand. Application was accepted and we didn’t have time. The way our platform was made was a luck of a draw. There was only one person who agreed to make it basing on our design. A week after Ewa called we had a chair, platform and everything we needed to open our stand.
A new idea occurred to you while you still had a regular job.
That’s true. I work on the biggest fishboat in Poznań – Liesner and I am a production and accounting specialist. I used to drive straight from the office to my shoeshine stand and that took a lot of time. I have a family and during that period I rarely saw my son. Later on I found more workers and I managed to have Wednesdays off. Still, at home my thoughts drifted to Pucybut. At that time I had orders to work on at home. Clients dropped of several pairs at the stand to pick up a few days later or even sent them in via post – sometimes up to 10 pairs!
Nowadays you don’t run a regular shoe-shine stand. Do you take orders?
Of course. I still have some regular clients, they call and drop off their shoes for shining.
In your posts you often mention the mirror effect. What’s that?
The shoe shines like a mirror, you can see your reflection in it. It takes time and patience. Just polishing the tip takes up to an hour and a half. Surprisingly enough putting on layers of wax and watching as the shoe begins to shine is a fascinating experience. The biggest competitions in the world are based on this technique. Poznań city held the last National Championship of Shoe Shining and I got the third place. Talking with the other participants I found that there were different ways of achieving the mirror effect, that I didn’t know about. I learned a lot that day.
What makes the work of a bootblack special?
Many interesting people showed up at our stand and it was great to get to know them. Some confided in us, like at the hairdresser’s. They sat down and talked about their lives. When I started work at 9AM on Saturdays fathers with small children visited the stand. They said that their wives were cleaning the house and they spend this time on shoe shining each and every week. It was their ritual.
Having your shoes shined is an incredible foot massage. Many women came in wearing clean shoes just to relax during the process. Sometimes they brought two pairs of shoes. When I was done with the first one, they put on the second one and returned to the chair.
Apparently guests from abroad heard about us at the airport right after landing and we became one of the attractions of their stay in Poznań. They came to the Stary Browar especially to visit us. It helped us to work on our language skills.
Some clients came in a hurry saying “help, I have a date in 30 minutes!”. We quickly soaked a sponge in our secret recipe cleaning solution and washed their trainers together with shoelaces right on their feet. I usually saw them later walking by with a girl, giving us a wink.
How does the shoe shine industry look in other countries?
In Great Britain bootblacks often have luxurious red carpets. In Poland the culture is different but this industry is growing. I’ve heard that in India there is a shoe-shine boy on every corner. On Wall Street bootblacks know what is happening on the stock market thanks to the information from their clients. I would love to know what techniques and products they use in the US. I prefer Saphir brand waxes. There is no better in my opinion. Not only does it work great, but it also smells terrific. When you open the can a scent of almonds fills the room.
Is it true that in order to achieve the best shine you have to spit on the shoe while polishing it, or is it just a movie fiction?
There is some truth in it. Shining shoes at home I’ve tried it. There are substances in the saliva which help in polishing the leather. However the best effect you get with a stocking. I even used to go to Gino Rossi to take a few of their sample socks to use for shoe shining. The combination of sleek leather and their texture results in the best shine. I have met bootblacks at the championships whose wives were sitting in the audience ready to take their stockings off and throw them to their husband.