Mission: 'Saving outer soles'

Owner of shoe-shine stand has polished 'em up since 1979
2013-02-17T00:00:00Z Mission: 'Saving outer soles'Kristen Cook Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
February 17, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Kathy Gowin knows how to shine.

Her fingers rub a plug of dark Lincoln Stain Wax up and down the length of her customer's boots, her hands moving quickly like a magician's. Her trick: turning scuffed shoes, boots - even sneakers - into fresh-out-of-the-box, new-looking kicks.

"My mission is saving outer soles," jokes Gowin, 65, who's as quick with a quip as she is with her hands.

For the past 34 years, Gowin's owned The Great American Shoe Shine Co., which is on the "A" concourse just past the security checkpoint at Tucson International Airport. She's a fixture from 5 a.m. until around 10 a.m. weekdays. Not Fridays, though: That's her special time with 6-year-old granddaughter Kasey.

This week, Gowin will take a break from harried travelers, bring along Kasey and work the rodeo, as she has for more than 20 years, hanging with the cowboys and cleaning their boots, sort of a losing proposition with all the dirt and, uh, other stuff around.

"There's a lot more work involved," is how she puts it. But, adds Gowin, who owns a 15-year-old donkey, "I'm used to the B.S."

It's her gift of gab as much as her polishing technique that attracts people to Gowin, says Judy McConnehey, office administrator for the Tucson Rodeo and a friend for the past seven years. There's usually a line waiting for Gowin's shine and stories, McConnehey reports.

And she's quick to share anything with anyone who plops into one of her two chairs.

Gowin got an early start learning how to shine shoes. One of five children born to Navy parents, she was "my mom's right arm," ironing uniforms and, of course, spiffing up the shoes.

Over the years, the divorced mother of one says she tried to get drafted during the Vietnam War, worked as a deck hand, logged time at horse and dude ranches, even cleaned Ryan Airfield in exchange for flying lessons.

Then, she says, "I got tired of working for a living."

She saw an ad to work a shoe-shine stand and ended up buying Great American in 1979. She has four employees.

Back when she started, a shine cost $1.50. These days a wooden sign lays out prices that her customers complain are too cheap: shoes and sneakers $7; boot bottoms $7; full boot $10. Small writing at the bottom declares "All prices subject to change depending on 'what's on 'em.'"

It's a cash-only biz complicated by the lack of an ATM nearby. No money? No problem - Gowin had a drop-slot built into her custom stand. She'll hand customers an envelope, and they can pay when they swing by again, even if it's much, much later. She recalls a man handing her a $20 bill one day.

"I said, 'Do you need change?' He said, 'No, I owe you that.'"

Turns out Gowin had shined his shoes and changed his shoe strings. A year earlier. He hadn't forgotten.

Dressed in a long-sleeve, navy University of Arizona Wildcats T-shirt with a red apron, Gowin talks anything and everything from her rescue donkey Eeyore to her smart, spunky granddaughter, whom Gowin adopted after a near-fatal car accident injured the girl and her father in 2007.

One thing she's learned - aside from the fact that a gum eraser and vegetable brush can scrub mock blood from military war games off suede boots - is how to read people. If the newspaper goes up or the cellphone gets pressed to the ear, she quickly and quietly goes about her job. Most people do like to chat, but travelers aren't always in the best mood.

"If they get here, I ungrump them," Gowin says.

As T.J. Gaia, in town from Nashville for a Caterpillar training seminar, has his boots shined, he and Gowin talk about Hurricane Sandy - his family got through fine - and even 9/11. Gowin was working that day and recalls watching the TV, stunned, and evacuating the airport.

About 15 minutes later, Gaia marvels at his shiny, 3-year-old Ariat boots. "They look better than when they were new," he says, then adds that he's never seen anyone polish with their hands.

Why does she shine with bare fingers?

"Well, I would look kind of funny ..." Gowin begins, then hoists up her leg as if she were going to use her foot to polish.

Truth is, the heat from her hands helps melt the wax into leather, so it rubs in better. Her fingers, stained a deep brown, are silky soft thanks to the lanolin in the products she uses.

Over the years, she's chatted up and polished the shoes of some pretty famous people.

"My favorite was Lee Marvin," she says of the late actor. "We would ham around. He's normal, down-to-earth. We had the greatest conversations."

Also logging time at The Great American Shoe Shine Co.: the band Chicago, actor Chuck Connors, country singer Willie Nelson. "You could have put him in your pocket, he was so little," Gowin says of Nelson.

At the airport, Gowin has one other, unofficial but important job. In the middle of a sentence, she'll look past you and call out, "Around the corner, to your left."

Then she looks back.

"That's my other job - telling people where the potty is."

""My favorite was (the late) Lee Marvin. We would ham around. He's normal, down-to-earth. We had the greatest conversations."

Kathy Gowin, on celebrities whose shoes she's shined.

Contact Kristen Cook at kcook@azstarnet.com or 573-4194.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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