An old saying goes 'you can tell a man by his shoes'. Well our shoes aren't exactly in the most pristine state — our mother would be disappointed if she could see the state of us — so we've gone to set our footwear straight.
We'd walked past Romi Topi's Top Shine stall in Burlington Arcade many times with a sense of intrigue. What, we wonder, is it like to be a shoeshiner — the kind of job you might associate with a Victorian urchin — in the 21st century?
Romi's story is a true rags to riches one. "I came from Greece in 2001," he says, "back then I studied English in the morning from eight till noon. After 12 I wanted to find a job. At that time it looked very slim because my English wasn't great and my qualifications were none.
"While I was wandering around after school, I saw a shoeshiner right in the corner of Burlington Arcade. I looked at him, shining shoes, busy and I thought 'if he can do it, I can do it'. It's a job that will give me an opportunity to speak to lots of people and it doesn't require any qualifications or diplomas."
With that Romi took a gamble and spent his last £250 on all the kit he needed to make it in his newly chosen profession. He set himself up in Jermyn Street, a couple roads parallel to where we are now. "So I went there on a dry day, before you knew it I had 12-15 customers everyday after school."
He did that for about three months when the man who'd inspired Romi to take up shoeshining in the first place, heard about his new competition. "I saw him one day coming over, looking at me angrily. He called the police and the next day I was evicted as I needed a license, which I didn't know. But, I liked the job, so I moved to a different location, the City. Again, after a few days the police told me to move on."
"I was sick and tired of it. So I made business cards, at my next location I gave every single person a card and said if you don't find me here tomorrow that's my card, I'll come and shine your shoes in the office." Romi was soon making a respectable living shining shoes throughout the City's law firms and offices.
Fast forward a few years and Romi had finished school, and kept up his shoe shine service alongside bar work to help make ends meet. By now he had a girlfriend and decided it was time to propose. "I remember Burlington Arcade has some nice shops, so I came over here to look for an engagement ring. While here I spotted the shoeshiner was no longer about."
He got talking to the arcade's security guard: "Do you know where the shoeshiner is?" he asked. He'd stopped turning up, explained the guard, and directed Romi to Selfridges for a shine. "I said 'I don't need a shoeshine because I am a shoeshiner myself, if you're telling me there's no one available, I'm quite interested in taking over.'"
Romi had come full circle; he now had the exact spot that inspired him to get into the shoe shining business in the first place. His story doesn't finish there though. Romi now employs others in his business Top Shine, and has two other permanent stalls, one at Fortnum & Masons and the other at Hackett.
Our interview is repeatedly interrupted by people passing by asking how long they'll have to wait for a shine. We'd always viewed the contemporary shoeshine business as a niche one, but clearly we're mistaken. Who is Romi's average customer? "Mainly, business people in the area and also a lot of people on business from abroad, who squeeze a little treat in the arcade to buy something for their wives when they pass me."
One such potential customer is a woman, which again clashes with the traditional image of a gent getting his brogues polished during his lunch hour. "It varies," says Romi, "we get lots of women during the wintertime as its boots season; but outside of that about 10% of our customers are women.
"Over the years I've come across a lot of characters and celebrities — [one of the first photos on Romi's website is him shining David Gandy's shoes]— what I enjoy most is talking to people. I take full pride in being here, because I provide something great for society and what is even better is that it pays my bills.
"I can honestly say the last 10 years are the best of my life and I hope that this continues for many more."
One of Romi's employees Kabir — who he affectionately refers to as brother — comes along to take over the stall for the rest of the afternoon. He started with Romi years ago making some money on the side while chasing his own dream of joining the RAF. He's achieved that dream, but enjoys shining shoes so much he comes back and picks up shifts on his days off. "We have regular clients who come here and talk to us [that like to see him], it's a bit like a hairdresser's."
Romi and Kabir clearly love their job, but it can't be ignored that shoe shiners are now a rarer breed than they were in London's past. "Back in the day people used to have one or two good pairs of shoes," says Romi, "handmade — often from Northampton — and they used to look after them. As the years progressed and cheaper shoes made overseas came to England, the new generation bought more pairs that were disposable. We still try to have as young a clientele as possible, but we do things the old fashioned way.
"It's not rocket science. Shoes need to be looked after, as any garment does, suits, shirts, etc. Lots of people cut corners when it comes to their shoes in a way they don't with the rest of their outfit." It's at this point Romi drops in that old proverb we began with. It seems the old way of thinking is coming back into style as Romi says, "Over the years here, we've seen an increase in clientele.
"People want to go back to shoes made by craftsmanship and hand. People that take pride in their jobs. So they don't mind paying £400 or £500 for a pair of shoes and that comes with a passion of looking after them."
Throughout our chat Romi's been doing a fantastic job on our grubby shoes. They might not be quite as expensive as some of his other customers', but he's done a good job in making us look respectable. He waxes — sometimes we amuse ourselves — lyrical about cleaning our leather shoes and opening the pores to helping it breathe, and nourish it. He brushes the dirt off the shoes, before using creams and dyes, then polishes to make them near unrecognisable.
This isn't an exact science with some of the extremely fancy shoes he sees at the stall. "Kabir has been here for six years now and we're both still learning. We've seen reptile based shoes, designers going crazy with their mix of leathers, from python to crocodile to ostrich." "Even fish skin," Kabir pipes in. These abnormal shoes have led to the occasional accident, with Romi even having to buy a customer a replacement pair. "He wanted a darker toecap, and my dye didn't penetrate the toecap but it penetrated everywhere else. The exact opposite of what he wanted."
Still these are the exceptions to Top Shine's excellent service. If you're looking for a quality shoeshine in central London — with some great conversation thrown in for free — Romi's the man to see.
Find out exactly when and where to get your shoes shined on Top Shine's website.
All photos by the author unless stated otherwise.