A mom-and-pop shoe shop stands the test of time.
A bell rings each time the door to Cliff’s Shoe Repair opens. A long wooden bench rests on the left side of the store; on the right, three raised seats. Along the front of the store sits a workbench stacked high with boots and lined with a few electric buffers. Naturally, the joint smells like leather and shoe polish. Although this is clearly a place of business, it’s tough to shake the feeling that you’re in someone’s home. The walls are covered with family snapshots and framed, yellowing newspaper clippings. A sketch of Barack Obama’s face that’s as big as a pizza box hangs by the door. As homes get forclosed on and businesses fold like paper cranes, Cliff’s Shoe Repair has proven itself an exception to the recession rule. “Business is doing really well,” says Cliff Burrell, grandson of the Cliff for whom the shop is named. He smiles slow and wide. “People are taking better care of what they have. They’re not going to go out and buy a new pair of shoes. If you’ve got a real nice pair, you’re just going to put a few dollars into them to keep them nice. We’re about the only place around that does what we do. Places have been closing in the last few years.”
Cliff, 42, is a calm, thoughtful man. He treats everything he holds like a fragile and valuable object; ironic, seeing as he’s usually handling a pair of boots that the owners have beat the crap out of banging on pavement, scratching against the sidewalks, stepping in slush.
A shoeshine is an underrated delight. You feel as if you’ve bought something brand new without really paying for it. When your heels and soles hit the street it seems like the pavement propels you forward. You walk with Fred Astaire care, sidestepping puddles and sidewalk cracks. Once you start having your shoes shined, you realize that while this service is one you used to live without, you aren’t quite sure how.
There is a striking dignity about Cliff’s. This is not the myth of the shoeshine, the little boy in “Get Rhythm” that Johnny Cash sings about on that windy corner of a dirty street. This is a four-generations-old establishment with the original benches and seats that grandpa Cliff Burrell built in the ’30s. The phone number—215.222.9312—hasn’t changed since 1934. The shop’s current owners, Cliff and his two brothers Jerry, 50, and Eric, 49, speak of their father, and of his father, with fierce reverence. They will tell you they are not the men their father or grandfather was, but they are trying to be.
Cliff was 11 when he called his grandfather to ask for a new coat. The elder Cliff’s reply: “Why don’t you come on down here and start working at the shop?” He’s been working here ever since. “He was a serious man,” Cliff says of his grandfather. “A strict man.”
The rhythm of the shop is exactly as it was last year and, presumably, the same as it was 78 years ago, on opening day: a handful of people sitting on benches, leaning in chairs, instantly congenial. The room feels like something out of another time, probably because no one is texting or talking on the phone, or has the thin white wire of iPod headphones snaking out of their ears down their chest. Here, you enjoy the art of casual communication, the musicality of “How’s your weekend?” and “Let me show you something.” There’s amble chatter and laughter that erupts from the gut.
Cliff’s operates like a small town: you know people’s names, you ask about their kids. “Good” is a higher compliment than “great,” as in, there’s nothing better to be than a good man. It’s a lot like Philadelphia, a city-sized network of small towns. 135 square miles of neighborhoods and street corners, local bars and bookstores, people doing their best to avoid colliding with the crime and violence that interrupt the routine of family life.
Cliff’s is not a family immune to the effects of violence but it’s a family that has survived it. In 2009, Cliff's niece was shot in the head. “She's fine now,” he says. “God saved her.” This family, and this place, endures.
In 1932, Cliff Burrell was working in a shoe factory in Gloucester County, Va. During the Work Progress Administration, Burrell came up with an idea of how to make a shoeshine last longer and decided when he got the chance, he’d open up his own shop and “make customers beat a path to his doorstep.” He came to Philadelphia and got a job shining shoes at 40th and Market streets that paid $2.50 a week. Two years later, he opened Cliff’s down at 109 S. 40th Street. He charged 50 cents a shine.
One Sunday, Burrell went to church and met a girl named Mamie. They married, had a son, and he kept on shining shoes. Years later, Burrell's son would marry a girl from their North Philly neighborhood. They had three boys—Jerry, then Eric, then the younger Cliff, who runs the shop today. The family lived at 46th and Market. One Friday night last winter, a half-hour before closing, Eric sits on the bench across from the chair his mother used to flirt with his father on and talks about his grandfather. “He was a likeable guy and he had what no one else had. He had a shoeshine that was twice the shine of a spit shine and lasts for 30 days. No one had ever seen a shine like that. When it rained, the water just bounced off the shoes.”
No one ever reveals the shoeshine formula, says Jerry—with the could-have-played-football-in-high-school shoulders—as he polishes some shoes. “It’s a family secret. That’s all I can tell ya.”
Like his brothers, the subject of his grandfather is something Eric returns to almost compulsively. “I remember my grandfather working,” he says. “I would be sitting here and my grandfather would say: ‘You gonna work or you gonna go home?’ I’d sit here for a while and stack the shoes and say, “I’m going home,” and he’d say ‘Then get on outta here!’ I remember him just chastising a lot because I stayed in trouble a lot when I was younger.”
Eric, who was eight or nine when his father died, recalls a period during his childhood when he was acting out: “I was being bad, showing off in school because my father wasn’t around. He [my grandfather] whooped me up there, outside the school! Everybody, they were laughing at me.” Eric laughs now, too, at the memory, the sting of the spanking, the strange but good feeling of discipline.
“He stayed on us,” Jerry says. “We didn’t know how good we had it.” Shaking his head, he adds: “A lot of children, they don’t have no love. They don’t even know where they come from. They don’t know where their root is.”
On that note, Jerry is done for the night. He tells his brother goodbye. “I love you, man.” Eric replies, “I love you, too.” It’s not an obligatory I-have-to-say-I-love-you-because-we’re-brothers. The phrase seems natural after decades of practice.
The bell rings. Jerry’s gone.
Eric gets up from the bench and slides into a seat across the way. “When I was young,” he said, “I would be at my grandfather’s house every day. We lived in the projects, and Drexel Field was right there, so I could just jump over the gate, run without stopping through that field, climb over the other wall, and my grandmother and that house were sitting right there. 521 North 42nd Street … the sign … 521, it’s still there.”
Eric’s voice has a booming, Baptist preacher quality, but now he gets quiet. “I guess ... as time went on, my grandfather had to start getting sick. He had cancer, and he died. And my grandmother must have gotten sick, too, something in her heart.” Then she died.
“[My grandfather], he didn’t take no stuff. No sitting around. There wasn’t no not working. Things change now, because he ain’t here. These kids today, their parents did a bad job raising ’em. That’s why my daughter got shot in the head.”