Letters From The Field

Have pen, will travel. Sending letters.

Shoeshine, Sir?

A letter from Turkey. In which is noticed, while travelling, the modern-day disappearance of certain professions.

Istanbul, September 2014


I met a shoeblack the other day in Istanbul, right next to Hagia Sophia. On my way from one sight to yet another, he was sitting at the street corner offering to polish my shoes while I passed by: “Shoeshine, Sir? Have your shoes cleaned!” I kindly declined in Turkish, but he was insisting: “Your shoes are dusty, Sir. Better to clean them, I know.” Curiously, I stopped, turned around and had a look. I told him that he probably was right. That I was walking around town a lot that day. And that I wasn’t sure, this really would be worth the effort as I still had quite some dusty roads ahead of me. He made a disapproving flicking noise, explaining that properly polished shoes could bear up a bit of road dust, asking where I was coming from. When I told him and he replied in German (which is not at all that unusual, in particular when meeting senior Turks) we already were engaged in a conversation. “Well, Bruder …” – he said, switching from ‘Sir’ to ‘brother’ in German – “I am doing this kind of work for 45 years now. And apparently, these are bad times for shoe shiners. People today are wearing all kinds of sports shoes.” And glancing at my dusty black leather loafers he added, sighing: “No leather ones anymore …”


That made me think. Of course I’ve seen shoeblacks before. They’re part of the common street scene in most eastern countries. I’ve noticed them. I was aware of them. But I mostly ignored them. Not a single time it occurred to me I could make use of their service. The mere idea just seems odd. Probably because this profession is not part of our western everyday culture anymore. Replaced by polishing machines, shoe shine sponges and the simple circumstance that most people rather buy new cheap shoes than investing into some cleaning and refurbishing of dear old ones. You know I don’t mean this reproachful – actually, I couldn’t even exclude myself from this discovery. It’s just a matter of fact that we are living in a society of short-lived goods. A society which actually seems to have less and less place for certain professions. I mean, when was the last time you went to a cobbler? A real cobbler I mean, not the guy next to the supermarket who glues your rubber sole (no offence, though). Our sense of needs and priorities is shifting. That is the reason we would feel a bit awkward having someone polished our shoes, immediately evoking pictures of some dismal Charles-Dickens-London street-scene. A strange discrepancy in our perception between ‘servant’ and ‘service’ maybe? Why hesitate letting the shoe polisher do his job, but accept being served by a waiter without second thought? Because the first one seems so out of time and place to us. A profession becoming extinct, apparently.

So, dear friend, what do you think: How much and how quickly is progress shaping our perception of services like this? Do you actually know of other careers and professions silently disappearing from our streets and society?


15 comments on “Shoeshine, Sir?

  1. TheBohoChica
    September 17, 2014

    What a thought provoking observation. I really enjoyed your article.

    • J.N.
      September 18, 2014

      Thanks a lot! This encounter really got me thinkinhg, as I’ve never viewed onto these guys from this perspective. Any ‘endangered’ professions you’ve met?

  2. mariafalvey.net (@mariafalvey)
    September 18, 2014

    Before moving to the Arctic, back when I wore shoes (as opposed to mud or snow boots year-round) and would drop pairs off at the “shoe hospital” every few months for cleaning, polishing and minor repairs – it was great because they never truly “wore out” that way.

    I recall bathroom attendants in Czech Republic and I think that work is a bit rare these days (I’m not talking about janitors/custodians).

    Can’t recall the last time I saw Milk delivered to anyone’s house in any country.

    Hrmmm…food for thought.

    • J.N.
      September 18, 2014

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment! The ‘milk man’, indeed! Our the guy delivering coal, I remember from my childhood. I guess everyone’s just enjoying district heating in the meantime, fireplaces for strictly aesthetic reasons fueled with firewood from the hardware store.

    • N.S-M
      September 19, 2014

      Come to Ireland, and you have your milk man. We are using the opportunity to get our milk delivered. Of course not fresh bottle milk (from the cow) as it is illegal as I’ve heard, but still it is milk from the milk man delivered onto your foot mat :)

  3. Evit
    September 24, 2014

    I guess the paperboy selling newspapers on a street corner is disappeared too… Although I’m not sure we ever had one in Italy. I see it in American movies.

    Street food sold from carts has long disappeared except for a few cases down in the south of Italy. The closest thing left are street markets and kiosks.

    • J.N.
      September 24, 2014

      Oh, in Berlin we actually still have those mobile newspaper sellers. Although they’re not advertising the latest headline by yelling around like you see it in these old movies. ;-)

      • Evit
        September 24, 2014

        That’s curious. I wouldn’t have expected it.

  4. Evit
    September 24, 2014

    My father still goes to the cobbler for some pair of shoes he owns. No rubber soles.

  5. thefolia
    January 25, 2015

    Viva la cobbler and his long-lived goods. Our food industry has also declined oh so pathetically. Viva la farmer with his good ole ways of farming without a care for the short term outcome.

  6. nini
    February 24, 2015

    Nice write up. I enjoy reading it!

  7. elbrenzink
    April 10, 2016

    Pretty interesting letter Jens. Made me remember the arrotino ( blade sharpener/ knife grinder) that used to be on the same spot every Satarday behind my hometown Cathedral. He is not there anymore, and I miss his fatal professionally sharpened knives that used to take fingertips and nails as an offer from anyone who dared to use it right way from being sharpened.

    • Jens
      April 11, 2016

      Thanks, Ellen! It’s interesting (and a bit melancholic) to notice this subtle change, isn’t it. I’m not going to say something against progress per se, just noting a never-ending, ever-going flux, right?

      • elbrenzink
        April 12, 2016

        You’re right! This, melancholy and a couple of blunt knives.😉

  8. Juli
    May 2, 2016

    I read your post, very interesting. Wish some of these professions would still exists today. At least at our ages, we have come to see them in our eyes or experienced them. But the question is : “What would become of the children of our children?” What are they going to know and see in a world that has already moved too fast and gotten rid of the cultures born by our ancestors, and hence their great, great, great, great grand kids will never know and see their inventions and history.

    My dad is 85 years old and he still polish his shoes, and am so glad that at least he is still using some old shabby ways of his young youth.
    Actually we lived in a world when something has gone off the look it was when it was new, we cannot be bothered to try and bring a little life back to it. We dump them down the charity shops, yup, thinking it is going to help someone else who are in need, not even thinking how much money the owners or shareholders of charities are putting into their swollen personal bank accounts. Lots of people don’t ask that kind of questions until the government published their doings publicly that Charity owners are not using our money we give to them in the proper way. help are not reaching those who are in need.

    Well this is the world we live in today. A world where the most valuable lifestyle have disappeared. This is people and this is life!

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This entry was posted on September 17, 2014 by in Reflecting and tagged , , , , , .

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