Save Money in this Sunday's paper

In My Opinion


After 30 years, Latta Arcade shoeshine man is retiring

Mark Washburn
Mark Washburn writes television and radio commentary for The Charlotte Observer.

More Information

  • Shoeshine man retires 12.22.13
  • What is The Order of the Long Leaf Pine?

    The Order of the Long Leaf Pine is among the most prestigious awards presented by the Governor of North Carolina. The Order of the Long Leaf Pine is presented to individuals who have a proven record of extraordinary service to the state. Contributions to their communities, extra effort in their careers, and many years of service to their organizations are some of the guidelines by which recipients are selected for this award. The honor is most often presented when a person retires.

    - Wikipedia

Christmas Eve is the end of the road for the shoe man.

For three decades, Grady Parker has been a fixture in uptown’s Latta Arcade, greeting the masses, dispensing advice and rejuvenating shoes. Tuesday’s his last day.

He doesn’t look anywhere near it, but Parker’s pushing 80. His kids are nagging him to retire.

Retirement, they know, doesn’t mean he’ll entirely quit working, because work is all he’s ever known.

“I was born six blocks from here,” Parker says while sitting in his roost at the arcade shoeshine stand. “Born in Brooklyn – 626 South Plum St. I’ll never forget it.”

He was the baby of the family in the old second-ward neighborhood, the last of nine children. He’s the only one still alive. He started working as a kid.

“There were two things you could do to make a little money back then,” Parker says. “You either caddied or shined shoes.”

Still has golf injury

He points to a scar above his right eye. Got that from an errant shot on his first caddying gig. He switched careers that day.

Soon he was working at the J.D. Janes Shoe Shine Shack at 324 S. Long St., charging a dime a shine. After graduating from Second Ward High School, he went to work at the Biltmore Dairy on West Morehead Street, stacking glass bottles that clinked at every turn.

He did other odd jobs, then landed with Piedmont Airlines. He moved bags or whatever else was needed. That was his first official career. He retired after 30 years, and went looking for something else to do. He went to his friend Al Russo.

Russo, who served on Charlotte City Council before his death in 2001 at age 76, ran the Brownlee Jeweler’s store back when it was in the Trotter Building on Tryon Street. They got acquainted when Parker was still a teenager, wooing his girlfriend Eva with sweet talk and shiny things.

If Russo believed in you, he’d let you buy things on installment. Russo believed in Parker.

“I’d buy jewelry from him and he’d let me pay on time. He’d do that if he trusted you. He was a good man.”

Jewelry was apparently a good investment for Parker. He and Eva celebrated their 60th anniversary this month. They have 10 children ranging in age from 48 to 60.

A helping hand

So Parker was talking to Russo and let him know he needed something to keep busy. “Give me a day or two and I think I can do something for you,” Russo told him.

He got Parker a job in his old business, doing shoes at the stand at the Latta Arcade. That was about 30 years ago.

Those were the days when shoes were mostly monochrome, when people took care of their footwear, when you could pretty much tell what a person did by the way they dressed. Those days are long gone, Parker says.

“Now, they spend all that money on shoes and don’t take care of them,” he says. “People dress like they’re ready to go out and pick cotton. I think if you dress casual, you work casual.”

Pride in technique

Parker has always taken pride in the shoes that leave his stand. He starts with a good application of saddle soap. It loosens grime and seals up thread holes to prolong the life of the shoe.

He applies polish with his bare fingers to work it in, and he works it in hard. He doesn’t advertise it, but it’s like getting a professional foot rub.

Then comes the brush, the buff, and the shoes sparkle away, down the Latta Arcade.

Some tip, some don’t

At the stand, shoes get done for $6, boots for $10.

What’s your biggest tip?

“I’ve gotten several hundred-dollar tips over the years,” Parker says. And why not? He’s made old shoes look like new ones.

Some customers don’t tip at all, sometimes the ones with toughest shoes. No biggie, says Parker. He makes sure they get the best possible job anyway.

“When they leave here, they represent me. I do my very best for them.”

On to his new job

Parker’s had hip surgery three times, followed by a staph infection. It’s hurt his mobility. When he hangs up his brush Tuesday, that will be it for the shoe-shine phase of his life.

He plans to start working at his lifelong church, the United House of Prayer for All People on Beatties Ford Road. “I see something that needs to be done, I’ll do it,” Parker says. “But I won’t be told to do it.”

Yep, that’s the way retirement should work.

He’ll also keep doing part-time catering on the side. All his kids are good cooks and all of them help out when needed.

For a few days, the Latta Arcade shoe-shine stand will sit quietly. Then, on Dec. 30, Walter Neely will take over.

Parker and Neely grew up three houses apart. If Neely’s like Parker, he should be there for many, many years. He’s only in late ’60s.

“He’s a good man,” Parker says.

Washburn: 704-358-5007
Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

The Charlotte Observer welcomes your comments on news of the day. The more voices engaged in conversation, the better for us all, but do keep it civil. Please refrain from profanity, obscenity, spam, name-calling or attacking others for their views.

Have a news tip? You can send it to a local news editor; email to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Charlotte Observer.

  Read more

Quick Job Search
Salary Databases