A Really Big Shoe(shine)

Fort Lauderdale's once-booming black business district still has sole

Kevin Love strolls into Phillips & Grooms Shoe Repair & Cleaning with a thick roll of bills buried in the pocket of his black dress slacks and a need. Tall, big, built, Love has the kind of self-confidence that leaves a wake of wow wherever he goes. Despite the scorching heat, his silky rayon shirt is mysteriously lacking wrinkles. On his feet, he's wearing black dress leather oxfords, signaling a certain formality even though his shirt is untucked and short-sleeved. Love climbs up into a high-backed, upholstered, tweed chair and plants his feet on a wooden block. To the untrained eye, he appears one well-groomed guy. But there's always room for finishing flourishes. "Everybody's different," he says. "But I just don't feel good unless my shoes are shined."

Tyron Grooms swabs Love's oxfords with black dye to fill in scuff marks and return the leather's pristine finish before applying black paste wax. The two go way back. They met at what is now the Joseph C. Cotton recreation center. That's where all black kids in Fort Lauderdale learned to swim, the 44-year-old Grooms says. Love eyeballs the shoes as Grooms whips a cloth over the top to bring out the sheen. "When I shine shoes, I ask if you have sunglasses," Grooms jokes. "Because if you don't, I have you sign a waiver."

Love, who's 46 years old, says he's been visiting the shop since he was a kid. He works in Hollywood now as a car salesman at Jumbo Auto and Truck Plaza. There's plenty of shoe repair businesses between there and P&G. "I wouldn't go no place else," says Love. "It would be like cheating."

This repair shop, now on Northwest Seventh Avenue near Broward Boulevard, has had a shoeshine stand for the 48 years it's been in business in Fort Lauderdale. Clients include Broward County Commissioner Joe Eggelletion, Broward County Sheriff Ken Jenne, and billionaire Wayne Huizenga.

Phillips & Grooms is an anachronism in a world where most repair shops whisk shoes through an electric buffer. Tyron's father, Ross, hates those machine shines. "Most people don't like to take their car through the brushes," Ross Grooms says. "They like a hand wax. That's what this is."

The shop got its start in Fort Lauderdale's original black business district along Northwest Fifth Avenue between Second and Fifth streets. That was the heart of segregated black Fort Lauderdale, says Gwen Hankerson, whose grandfather moved to Fort Lauderdale in 1902. The first black movie house, the Victory Theatre, was there. Entertainers such as Duke Ellington and Count Basie performed at the Windsor Club in the 1940s. Businesses lined the streets.

Matthew "Bud" Walters opened Bud's Community Shoe Shop -- which later became P&G's -- at 301 NW Fifth Ave. in 1955. In the six blocks between Second Street and Sistrunk Boulevard on Fifth Avenue, the 1956 city directory lists a string of places that hints at the life in a bustling business district. Tucked between single-family homes were a luncheonette, a couple of sandwich shops, a drugstore, a dentist, the medical offices of James Sistrunk, two churches, a beer garden, a couple of pool halls, a radio and television repair shop, barbershops and beauty parlors, a grocery, a department store, and a slew of other establishments.

Walters moved the business to Northwest Seventh Avenue in 1976 as urban renewal swept through and tore down most of the businesses on Northwest Fifth Avenue. Many of the black businesses moved west, Hankerson says, as did the homeowners in the area.

Ross Grooms and his brother-in-law Thomas Phillips bought the business from Walters when he retired in 1988. Grooms says they were schooled by Walter's long-time employee Leon Smith. He taught the finer points of the shoe business to Grooms, who was semiretired from the construction business, and Phillips, a longshoreman. Smith has worked at the shop for 31 years.

When Ross Grooms and Phillips took over, they kept the homey feel of Walters' shop. Behind the counter, they sell bags of roasted peanuts for $1 each. In the back of the shop, they still use Walters' Landis shoe stitcher to attach a sole to a shoe. A church pew and a couple of chairs are placed near a small color television. People bring their footwear here because it's where their mothers and fathers came. Word of mouth and that long history in the community still give the shop its core customer base. "It's kind of a landmark to people now," says Tyron. "They come in here to hash over old times."

When you have a customer up on the stand for 10 minutes or so, conversation is part of the art, Ross explains. "You don't have to be Einstein," he says, "but you've got to keep up with the papers. If a conversation starts, you want to be able to carry it on a bit."

When Tyron Grooms moved back to Florida from Detroit in 1996, he thought the shop was missing out on a potential new customer base. Tyron sat on a bench near the main library downtown, watching businesspeople bustling around downtown during their lunch hours. All those shoes, Tyron thought. So he convinced his father that the shoeshine part of their business had become a luxury practiced by the fastidious few.

It didn't seem as though the suit-and-tie and high-heel-and-hose crowd had acquired the habit of having their shoes hand shined. So P&G's decided to evangelize. Tyron set up a stand on the first floor of the then-First Union bank building at 200 E. Broward Blvd., right beside a bank of elevators that most of the employees used.

But even though plenty of people passed by Tyron's stand, only a handful climbed into the chair. At $4 a shine, it hardly made it worth his time. Tyron began asking people why they didn't step up and have a gleam put on their shoes. "No time," he says was the usual response.

That gave the P&G owners an idea. "There's a market for anything you want to do," Ross says. "It's just a matter of finding the need for it."

In the next several years, Ross developed a mobile business while Tyron managed the shop. Ross has a regular gig on Mondays at the Hollywood law offices of Becker & Poliakoff. When business slows down at the stand the company set up for him, Ross strolls through the offices picking up shoes from people at their desks. On Tuesdays he sets up a stand in the breezeway between the parking garage and the offices at the SouthTrust bank building at 1 E. Broward Blvd. But he does the most shines when he wheels his mobile cart on Wednesdays through the 14-story 450 E. Las Olas Blvd. building where Huizenga Holdings has its corporate offices. It's perfect for the computer-tethered worker. "They turn around, kick their shoes off, and keep working," Ross says. He works in the building from 7:30 a.m. to around 2 p.m.

When Wayne is in town, Grooms picks up his shoes when he stops into the 14th floor penthouse offices. He declines to say what kind of footwear the Dolphins' owner and resident fattest cat wears. Like the others, Huizenga just hands him his shoes and does business in his stocking feet until Grooms finishes the job. There's not much talk with anyone -- even Huizenga -- beyond hello, he says. "He's making big transactions. He's got people in his office," Grooms says. "I'm just a pimple on an elephant."

As a crush of new buildings takes shape downtown -- 10,000 new residents are expected -- P&G is planning to seize the opportunity. People spending big bucks to live in condos such as Las Olas Grand and Las Olas River House will likely be the sort who spend money on footwear. "When you spend $400 to $500 on a pair of shoes, you don't hand them over to just anybody," Ross says. P&G hopes to position itself as the shoe groomer of choice by bringing its service into the buildings of those 24/7 downtown residents. "But don't print that," Ross says. "We don't want to give any ideas to our competition."

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