Just for KicksPrint
The peculiar French aversion to shoeshines
By Thomas Chatterton Williams
April 4, 2018
When I was in New York last week, I stopped by Manhattan’s Chelsea Market for fish tacos and a shoeshine. I only do the latter when I’m traveling, because it is impossible to do in France. Op-ed columnists and other observers have long speculated about the reason for this. “Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of societies: those where you can get a shoe shine and those where you can’t,” wrote Roger Cohen in 2008. “There’s something about the idea of having someone stooped at the feet of a client applying polish to his or her boots that rubs the Gallic egalitarian spirit the wrong way. It’s just not what 1789 was about.” In America, of course, it’s different. Like a lemonade stand, the service speaks to our “notions of free enterprise, make-a-buck opportunism and the survival of the fittest.”
I thought about this while I was chatting with Kevin, the gregarious man who was expertly rejuvenating my derbies while also waving to regular passersby and patiently guiding tourists around the market. Kevin is the owner of The Shoeshine Guild—a kind of artisanal purveyor of the basic craft—with seats in New York and San Francisco. At $10, $15, and $25 dollars a pop, it’s not cheap. But neither are his products or his labor. His eyes lit up when I told him I was visiting from Paris. “It’s my dream to bring my business there,” he said, giving me his card. I told him I’d do anything I could to help him. It would be an unequivocal improvement.
But it’s also nice to live in a society where not everything is for sale. When I landed back in Paris, I placed my heavy bags on a luggage cart, which I unlocked free of charge. It would have set me back $6 in New York.
Thomas Chatterton Williams is the author of a memoir, Losing My Cool: Love, Literature, and a Black Man’s Escape from the Crowd. He lives in Paris with his wife and daughter.
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