“Are you a movie star?” he asked without waiting for an answer, “You’re a star, I know it.” That is the greeting I received walking into Burns Tobacconist in downtown Chattanooga, Tennessee. We arrived at 11AM as the store was preparing for afternoon customers. A clerk tended to some bookkeeping while another restocked inventory. In the back corner stood a large man, next to his shoe shine stand, seemingly eager for conversation.
It was a little early to shop for a cigar, but we were there to get a photograph — everything else that was about to happen was a bonus round.
As we asked for permission to take photos in the store, the man in the back continued to bellow, “You’re a star, I know it! Go on, get your cigar, and come see me.” I was more than happy to oblige. After a quick review of the inventory, I purchased an Oliva Serie V Double Torro. Cut and torched, I took a few good draws and headed straight for the stand.
Sherman put his newspaper down and prepped the stand for service. I climbed, sat down, took a quick puff, and he immediately went to work. While he cleaned the shoes, I tried to tell the man that I was not a star, but it’s not clear that he understood or cared. Though I doubt many people walk into the shop with a photographer in tow, my guess is that he treats everyone with the same positive gusto — a constant salesman.
Through the shine, Sherman gave me his take on life, especially pertaining to the pursuit of dating women. “The first thing women do is look at your shoes — this is what I try to tell these men (motioning around the office buildings surrounding us) — if you don’t take care of your shoes; women ain’t interested.” He continued, “When you go to the church picnic, the first thing they look at is your shoes. And if they like your shoes, next thing they ask is what kind of car you drive. And if they like your car, next they ask what you got in your pocket. And if you say, I have money in my pocket, then they say, okay, I’ll let you take me out for a chicken and steak dinner.”
These tidbits of wisdom were offered several times, in different configurations. It was clear to me that three things mattered the most in Sherman’s world: well-shined shoes, women, and chicken and steak dinners (in that order).
As he preached, Sherman repeated a process which included polishing, buffing with a rag, buffing with a machine, more polishing, drying with heat, and more buffing. He did these things three times. Meanwhile, Chloe took photos from every angle possible, and I enjoyed every bit of the Oliva. This scene went on for twenty minutes. I wasn’t a star when I walked into the shop, but I was starting to feel like one.
Unfortunately, the shoe shine came to an end. Sherman rolled my pant cuffs down and put things away. Chloe packed her camera. My time in the smoky limelight finished. We came into the store to find a final backdrop for a photoshoot, but got a lot more. Unintentionally, my world had grown richer; I made a new acquaintance, and — yegods! — my loafers looked better than new. I was ready for my chicken and steak dinner.
You can see the photo, and read my interview, in the May 2015 issue (the “Money Issue”) of Net magazine.