Apr 09, 2023

James Cole, The West Side's 'Shoe Shine King' Who Helped His Neighbors Find Work, Dies At 78

James Cole went from shining shoes outside pool halls to opening his own stores and becoming the West Side's "Shoe Shine King." He wanted others to learn, too.

AUSTIN — Shoes are shined back to front — and they ought to be spotless. For James Cole, shoe shining was a tool to teach generations of West Siders a sense of discipline.

Cole ran Shine King, 338 N. Central Ave., for nearly 60 years, giving rags and a fresh start to the neighborhood's kids and formerly incarcerated people. He died July 11 at 78 years old, said his son, Vernon Cole.

"If you played within the rules, within these four walls, my father gave you an opportunity," Cole said. "To shine shoes is to concentrate on what you’re doing. It seems so basic and little, but it means so much."

Many of James Cole's employees got their lives back on track, opening their own businesses or finding good public service jobs, his son said.

"You could have just done 10 years in prison, but as long as you were on good terms with my old man, you had a job," Vernon Cole said. "Whatever you do working here for him, anything you encounter in life after would be easy."

James Cole was "Mr. Blue Collar, with this way to connect with everybody," Vernon Cole said. James Cole paid attention to detail: He remembered where customers worked and where their kids went to school, especially if it was his alma mater, Marshall High School, his son said.

It was at Marshall where James Cole landed in Chicago, a ninth-grader and son of sharecroppers from Tennessee. He played on the basketball team and developed a competitive streak that later defined his shoe shine room, Vernon Cole said.

"I was 8, 9 years old working in the shop, and you had to shine shoes as well as the oldest person there," Vernon Cole said. "That was the athlete in him. You don't get to lead here until you can follow."

After high school, James Cole took odd jobs around the city, working in welding and picking breadcrumbs off a factory floor, Vernon Cole said.

The competitor in James Cole had a jones for shooting pool, so he shined shoes outside a pool hall on Madison Street and Kenzie Avenue, making just enough to "go back in and lose that money, too," Vernon Cole said.

James Cole started shining outside a nearby record store, talked his way into his own indoor stand and eventually took over the lease.

The first Shine King opened Dec. 21, 1964, at 3205 W. Madison St. The business expanded — but never left Garfield Park and Austin.

The shop at 338 N. Central Ave. has been open since 1968.

"My dad told people he had the opportunity to move anywhere he wanted to, but it means more to stay in the neighborhood, make his neighborhood better," Vernon Cole said. "He always lived on Madison Street."

Vernon Cole opened the shop the day after his father's death.

"Because this place was his peace," Vernon Cole said.

On Thursday, it buzzed with regulars. Neighbors came to pay respects.

"He was a great man," one woman said.

A newsman with The Austin Voice dropped off a stack of copies with Cole's picture across the front.

Longtime customer George Smith trusted the shop's workers with a bag of his finest shoes, raising his black alligator leather against the light.

Staffer TJ Conner got to work. He shines the way James Cole taught him: back to front, until spotless, no matter how many times it takes. He had worked for James Cole since he was 13 years old.

"He bought me my first winter coat," Conner said.

Vernon Cole said he grew up having to spend summers in his dad's shop "shining the same shoe over and over again."

As a young adult, Vernon Cole pulled away from the family business, he said. But when he had his first daughter, he found himself "at the place I could always come back."

Vernon Cole stood by as his dad greeted famous clients at the humble shop on the West Side: comedian Mike Epps, musicians Little Milton and Johnnie Taylor, Mayors Harold Washington and Lori Lightfoot, Louis Farrakhan and a young Barack Obama, who came by himself "like any other customer," Vernon Cole said.

"My dad was respected by everyone," Cole said. "He had no desire to be more than who he was. He was humbled."

James Cole taught his son to lead the business and would still shine shoes on occasion, "always striving to do better," his son said.

"He saw greater things for this community," Vernon Cole said. "The way it is today with the high unemployment rate, he thought this community can achieve so much more than that.

"He lived his life before he could see it fully come to fruition."

Colin Boyle contributed to this report.

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