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Shine on

Old customs endure in a storied west side parlor

MT Photos: Detroitblogger John
Owner Tony Seay with one of his pit bull puppies.
Footrests wait for shoes as Renaldo Conley cleans brushes in the background.
Shoe shiner Al Monday with a cardboard cutout of his hero, Mayor Coleman Young.
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Published 2/18/2009

Time stands still inside a little building on a dead street.Red's Jazz Shoe Shine Parlor is a living museum of an old way of life, a relic from a bygone era when the neighborhood it's in was a city within the city, and Detroit movers and shakers got together and told stories over a shoe shine.

There's scant evidence now that this was once a thriving entertainment district, until a freeway and a riot destroyed it. Now it's mostly a graveyard of empty buildings and brown lots.

But inside Red's, it's much the way it was nearly 60 years ago, when it was started by Willie D. Thomas, known as "Red," after his hair. There's a long, padded bench with thin, metal footrests, a jukebox playing old songs, a chessboard on a table and a TV showing sports or soul music concerts. And shoes still get shined the same as they did in the old days.

"Somebody comes in here, it's like they step back in time," says 53-year-old Al Monday, who works here off and on. "They're so comfortable you see that smile on their face, that gleam in their eyes. They go on and talk and everybody just gets quiet, 'cause we want to hear about it also. They come in to reminisce."

Red's opened in 1950, just up the street here in what's called the North End, one of Detroit oldest black middle-class neighborhoods. "This was a township in itself, this area," says 54-year-old Mark Justice, a regular customer. He drives in now and then for a shine and to visit his mother, who still lives in the old neighborhood.

"It was destroyed by design," he says. "They ran the expressway through here purposely. There was so much money generated in this area they wanted to break it up. ... The speakeasies and the after-hours gambling floated this area for a long time."

Monday grew up here too, and remembers when the neighborhood had everything. "You could go up there," he says, pointing to where the Chrysler Freeway now sits, "and buy a live chicken and bring it home. You never tasted a chicken like it. You could get fish, coon, turtle, live chicken, live turkeys, live rabbits. You'd just look in there" — he mimes looking in a pen — "and pick out your dinner. My grandma used to save the feathers and make pillows. We didn't waste nothing. I don't eat chicken feet anymore, but any other part of his ass is good, from the rooter to the tooter."

Among all the bars and stores and gambling dens, Red's was the crossroads, the spot where pastors, pimps and politicians would mingle with celebrities over a shine. The latter are remembered in framed photos on the walls — Malcolm X, Smokey Robinson, Jackie Wilson and Muhammad Ali among them. Aretha Franklin devotes space in her autobiography to the shop, and Eddie Kendricks' song "Shoe Shine Boy" was about Red. The Temptations and the Miracles would sing a cappella in front of the shop as they waited their turn. The place, the workers here say, is legendary.

The customer most revered here, however, the man with the most photos on the wall, is five-time Detroit Mayor Coleman Young.

"To me it was like seeing the president," Monday says of Young's frequent stops at the shop. "He had a persona about himself. Once he stepped in the room he just garnered all the attention because everybody knew what he was about. Same thing with Kwame, but Coleman was the thing. Of all the mayors that have come and gone, Coleman was 'The One.'"

Young would pull up front, sometimes in his Cadillac, and come in by himself or with a friend. "Coleman was his own man, let's put it that way," Monday says. "He was the mayor of this city. He didn't need no entourage, nothing like that."

Red's nephew, 48-year-old Robert "Peanut" Seay, started working here all those years ago. "Back then in the day, 1970s, when I was shining shoes, there'd be people lined all up against that wall, standing," he says. "There were about 13 of us working for Red then. We had a big crew."

He shines a dapper customer's black shoes effortlessly, almost unconsciously, while he talks. His technique is smooth and unique — he wipes both shoes' left sides first, then switches the cloth to the other hand and wipes the right sides. His hands move in quick sweeps. "We'd have so many shoes up in here, we didn't get out the shop until around about 1 o'clock, then turn around, gotta be back in the next day."

Men's fashion has changed since the shop opened, though, and so has demand for well-shined shoes. "There was a time you wouldn't catch nobody walking down the street in no gym shoes," Robert Seay says. "They always wore dress shoes. Nowadays, everybody's wearing gym shoes."

Some aren't though. Guys like Josha Talison, the 35-year-old principal of Thompson Middle School in Southfield, for one. He brought his two young kids to Red's one day to soak up some atmosphere while he got his shoes shined. They played with Seay's pit bull puppies, which wandered around the floor.

"It's almost like a barber shop for shoes," Talison says. He rolled his pant cuffs up to keep the polish off, and he wore a short mink coat. "You can come in and just get the feel of what's really going on all around, stuff like that."

Talison comes to take part in a lifestyle exemplified by the shoe shine. "It's one of the small things you do to make you feel good about yourself," he says. "The young guys wear Timberlands and boots and all that type of stuff everywhere they go, so they don't even understand the appreciation of dressing up. Kids don't even dress for church like they used to back in the day. You act a different way when you dress up."

Red's endures because the skill of shining is taken seriously here. "It's an art and a technique," Monday says. "You can't just get anybody to come in and pick up a brush and shine shoes." It costs a mere $4 to get shoes shined, a dollar more for boots. They use the spit shine, with two fingers wrapped in a rag smeared with polish, moving in small, swift circles on the shoe. It takes about 15 minutes. And therein lies the charm of the shine — the camaraderie, the enjoyment of an old ritual, the lingering over the whoosh of the brushes and the smell of the polish.

Red died from cancer in 2006 at 77, and his nephew, Tony Seay, Robert's brother, came back from Florida and took over the shop, which moved a decade ago to its current building, its fifth location on Oakland Avenue. He learned to shine shoes from Red as a teenager. "I broke in when I was 13," says Seay, 46. "The majority of the boys that's in the family, when we get 13 we would have to come down here to train us, teach us the trade."

Most workers here are family, though some, like Monday, are guys hired from the area. "Red was a cool old dude, like the Godfather of the neighborhood," Monday says. "He was a gruff old guy that didn't take no mess but he gave a guy a chance. If you came in and said you needed a job he gave you a chance. He gave a guy an even break." Off to the side, a lone shoe shine chair holds an old photo of Red and his wife. It's a memorial.

Just as Red brought in and taught area folks, Seay stays with tradition, teaching skills to neighborhood kids like 13-year-old Dayvon Cullum, who watched intently as Seay's 28-year-old son Jamel polished a pair of boots. "That's what my uncle used to do — train the guys from the neighborhood, give them something to do, keep them out of trouble," Tony Seay says. "They're just watching now. But they'll be up on the stand in no time."

Detroitblogger John scours the city for hidden gems. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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