This is part of WUWM's "Fixing Stuff" series, in which reporter Lina Tran brings stories of businesses that fix things.
Charles Palmer brushed a black dress shoe gently, yet firmly, over and over. You can tell he's been doing this for years. The motion is in his bones.
He hovered over the shoe's creases, paying them extra attention.
"Depending upon if the leather seems to be hard, dry, or brittle, I will use this conditioning cream to soften up the leather," Palmer explained. That "helps prevent the leather from cracking."
We were in Palmer's Washington Park shop, Charles’ Elite Shoe Shine and Repair World, located at 4009 W. North Ave. in Milwaukee.
His business represents a departure from the typical cycle of shoe-shopping. Buying a new pair of shoes is easy. Just a couple taps on the phone, a few days of express shipping, and they’ll land at your door. But that fast fashion comes at a cost, to our wallets and the environment.
A better option is for people to use their stuff longer.
Palmer happened to be polishing a pair of his own shoes that he's had for at least 20 years. But he told me he’ll treat every pair that comes through the shop like it belongs to him.
I asked about the next steps in the process.
"Shine it up real good," he said. "I do have some more secrets that I use. I don't want to put it out there."
The air was thick with the smell of leather, wax, and incense. Shoe-filled shelves lined the floors. There were gleaming dress shoes, rugged boots, and fancy heels.
Palmer's been appointment-only since he opened about 3 years ago, after a career in sales and hospitality.
The 71-year-old business owner has come a long way from his first steps into the shoe shine industry when he was eight. Back then, all he had was a glass mason jar — customers would either sit down or stand up and prop their foot on the jar. His first post was on 12th and North Avenue.
"It did fall and break one particular day," Palmer said. "A gentleman, he saw what happened and he took the initiative to go and buy me a real shoe-shining kit."
Today at Palmer's shop, an old-fashioned polish is just one of many services you can get. He cleans up musty suede, freshens dingy tennis shoes, and tackles stubborn salt stains. He’ll get your shoes resoled and damaged heels re-built.
All of that helps extend the life of your shoes.
It takes a lot of water, energy, chemicals, and planet-warming emissions to make clothes and shoes. But every year, tons of them end up in landfills. In 2018, according to the Environmental Protection Agency's most recent estimate, the country generated almost 13 million tons of clothing and footwear trash.
Low-quality materials shrink a shoe's lifespan, accelerating the cycle.
"A lot of people are buying cheaper shoes," Palmer said. "You wear ‘em once, they start to wear down, you throw them away. Buy another cheap pair and the same thing."
Palmer said a good pair of shoes is a worthy investment. You can make them last longer by taking care of them and repairing them instead of replacing them when they get damaged.
Palmer considers himself as an educator, teaching people how to take care of their shoes and get the most out of them.
And who better to learn from, than a self-professed shoe fanatic?
Palmer's love for shoes began with a promise to himself.
"We grew up poor on welfare," he said. "My one pair of shoes had holes in the bottom. I remember it raining, and I had to put cardboard in the bottom of my shoes, and my feet got soaking wet. And I said whenever I become able to get my own shoes, I’m going to get every shoe that I like that I can afford."
Palmer likes a lot of shoes: He was a little embarrassed to admit he has around 300 pairs.
Shoes, Palmer said, are the real litmus test for presentation. Part of what he loves so much about his work is that he gets to make shoes look great again.
"You can put on a suit and tie to look real sharp, but if you look down at your feet and they don't look appealing, then it takes away [from] the whole proper look of your attire," he said.
While the business may have started in retirement, Palmer's vision is to kickstart others’ careers and keep this art he so loves alive. He dreams of taking on young adults as apprentices.
His shop name comes up again: Elite Shoe Shop and Repair World.
"The reason I put ‘world’ at the end of it is because this is a dying industry," Palmer explained. "The young men and young women who decide to come under my tutelage to learn this craft here, they can eventually franchise this business and go anywhere in the world and open up their own shoe repair shop."
If we want to take better care of our shoes and the environment, this is the kind of business we’ll need more of.