MINNEAPOLIS — For half of her life, Lisa Fredell has helped people put their best foot forward.
She’s a shoe shiner who marks 25 years this month as a fixture of the IDS Center’s Crystal Court in downtown Minneapolis, buffing brogues, wiping wingtips and polishing penny loafers at Lisa’s Shoe Shines in an alcove within earshot of the falling fountain.
“It was a beautiful sunny day,” Fredell said of Feb. 1, 1991, her first day on the job. “I’ll never forget it.” She laughed: “I was late.” Bus troubles, but she barely missed a beat.
“This is my calling,” she said, sipping a Coke after closing up shop, six hours on her feet, forever leaning in. “I’m honored to have found this job by accident, and I bring honor to the business.”
Once, shoe shine stands were a common sight downtown; today, there are just a handful, and Fredell, 50, appears to be the only woman shoe shiner among them.
She didn’t foresee this career. For three years, she sold women’s shoes “until I burned out,” then took a job cleaning offices downtown. She began noticing more and more shoe shine stands, including one that employed only women. Watching them one day, Fredell thought, “Omigod, I could totally do this.”
Her father wasn’t pleased.
“He thought it could be dangerous,” she said. And you do get to know human nature, she said, although she added that she’s never felt imperiled. “I’m always aware of my space, and I have a lot of people who just stop by to visit. They look out for me.”
She’s there to listen
Fredell has a striking smile, a cashmere voice and a shower of skinny braids long enough to graze her waist. She makes a point of wearing T-shirts featuring famous rock stars “to show my personality.” Of late, David Bowie has been getting a lot of wear. “He was my man.”
Winter is her busiest season, with a steady stream of shoes subjected to a slushy, salty, sloppy, snowy assault. She’s lost count of how many people apologize for the state of their footwear as they climb into her custom-made stands, fine pieces of furniture in their own right.
“I say, ‘Sweetie, that’s why I’m here.’ ”
A quarter-century of this work has attuned her to finer points of the human psyche — say, what people’s choice of shoes says about them.
“A lot of people don’t think they deserve better,” she said, referring to all-too-common, all-too-affordable, poorly made shoes. Given the need to replace them time and again, the cost probably rivals what a quality pair would cost. Shoes, she believes, should be an investment.
She has customers who say little, while others like to talk, eking a bit of therapy from their shoe shine.
“I find it really fascinating to hear about other people’s experiences, and if they ever ask for my opinion, I’ll give it,” Fredell said. “But I think they just need someone to listen. The world has too few listeners.”
Mostly, though, her customers know the value of being well-groomed.
“She gave me my first shoe shine,” said Greg Baranivsky of Plymouth, Minn. He used to work downtown for a boss — “former military” — who put great stock in shined shoes. Baranivsky now works in Edina, Minn., but sought out Fredell before heading to the Marriott for the annual dinner of the CFA Society, a group of investment professionals or, as he put it, “a thousand folks in suits.”
Time for a shoe shine.
“It just part of your appearance,” he said, “and appearances matter.”
So it’s a little perplexing that so few of Fredell’s customers, maybe five in a hundred, are women.
“They think it’s a men’s thing,” Fredell said, despite the popularity of women’s boots. “They’ve paid a pretty penny for them, but trash them and buy new. Maybe it’s an excuse to shop.”
She shines an average of three to four dozen pairs daily, including those that people drop off. The job takes its toll. Fredell has had both hips replaced and is a regular at the chiropractor.
Once, she was open to teaching aspiring shoe shiners, but has grown weary of their cutting corners, of their surprise at her work standards.
“They think it’s an easy thing to do, and it kinda isn’t!” she said with some exasperation. “This job takes a particular person. You have to be open-minded, love people and not be afraid of hard work. But I love it.”
‘Bing! I’m just fine’
Shoe shiners have been around for centuries, and around the world, with the skill historically done by male children — shoe shine boys — who provided their families with a steady income. It’s unclear how the job became so associated with black families, although the skill claims some famous practitioners, from James Brown to Malcolm X.
Her grandfather once had a stand “back in the day.” Now, though, Fredrell sees the number of shoe shiners dwindling.
“Especially in black culture, people think it’s beneath them to do such a job,” she said. “Back in the day, it was looked at as not so honorable. But it offers instant gratification. It’s truly an art. You meet people from different walks of life, and you’re always networking.”
One wall of her alcove is papered with inspirational sayings she’s collected. Reads one: “I dedicate myself to being seen and not viewed.”
She paused. “I can’t even put it into words. I think this work saved me. Even in troubled times of my life, I can come in and talk with customers and” — she snapped her fingers — “Bing! I’m just fine.”
Still, she doesn’t want to be shining shoes “the rest of my days,” and she and her husband have a 15-year-old daughter who is more into music than shoes.
So Fredell’s next venture is learning how to make custom-made shoes, and she’s on the hunt for a teacher.
“If I found someone, that would be amazing,” she said. “I want to make this another niche for Minnesota, put us on the map with custom-made shoes.”
She also holds a patent involving shoes that shall remain secret — for now — so that’s also something to work toward.
“But I will always have a stand,” she said. “Whether I’m the one shining or not, I will always have a stand.”