Friday, December 20, 2013

Knowing Shinola

I suspect that I am of the last generation that grew up knowing how to shine shoes, a skill passed down from father to child – at least in our house.

Of course, back in the day, you didn’t have many pairs of shoes, and most of them were leather, so they were built to last and you had to take care of them. Part of this meant polishing those few pairs of shoes on Saturday night. School shoes, which, over the years, migrated from double strap Mary Janes to saddle shoes to penny loafers, were attended to first, with liquid polish put on with the sponge tipped applicator attached to the lid of a bottle of Scuffy. Patent leather Sunday shoes got a bit of a shine up using Vaseline.

Weirdly, we also polished our white sneakers, using liquid SaniWhite or Lanol White. Since canvas is not the ideal surface for shoe polish, that polish mostly just caked up and cracked off. Better luck using SaniWhite on the white parts of saddle shoes, or on waitress whites. But white shoe polish was always something of a chalky mess to deal with.

While kids wielded the Scuffy and the SaniWhite, my father took care of his Florsheims with Kiwi, a crème polish.

Although I will confess that I can go years without polishing a pair of shoes – I have the cobbler do it when I take shoes in for new heels – I still have my shoe shine kit, which is actually a net bag containing several tins of Kiwi and Meltonian, as well as polishing rags and brushes.

And, yes,  I still remember how to use them. And, yes, I love the smell of polish. And, yes, I do use a bit of spit.

But the most famous shoe polish brand of all time wasn’t used in our house.

Despite living in a Shinola-Free Zone, it was hard to grow up without hearing the expression “he doesn’t know shit from Shinola.” (One of those “Kilroy was here,” Hubba-hubba, SNAFU (Situation Normal All Fouled Up), terms our fathers brought back in the duffle bags from WWII.)

Other than “shit from Shinola”, Shinola pretty much disappeared from the scene with the black and white TV, the Bakelite rotary dial phone, and the girdle.

But now the brand is back, and it’s only incidentally associated with polish.

If you want to get yourself some Shinola, you can strap it on your wrist (a Shinola watch). Pedal it down your driveway (a Shinola bicycle). Or toss it to your brother (a Shinola football).

Shinola also sells leather goods – which look very nice, I must say – and good old Shinola polish to keep them looking spiffy.

But if you want something Shinola, it won’t come cheap.

The Runwell watch will run you $700. The Runwell bike will run you $2,950.

And – hubba, hubba – Shinola’s headquartered in Detroit, where:

In short order, [it] has become a fashion darling and a paragon of both U.S. entrepreneurship and tricky manufacturing. Named after an old shoe polish brand, the company started selling its watches—along with bikes, bags, and journals—back in March. It hopes to make 45,000 this year and an additional 500,000 next year. Given an average price of $600, that would be a $300 million business in watches alone.

The company is the brainchild of Tom Kartsotis, founder and and former CEO of Fossil. He was living in Dallas when he launched the business that would become Fossil, but Detroit plays a big part in the ethos of his new venture. Shinola’s tag line is “Where American is Made,” and a narrator in its online ad says the company is “an effort to retake our place on the factory floor.” He continues: “We believe in the beauty of industry—the glory of manufacturing.” (Source: Business Week)

I, too, believe in the glory of manufacturing.

This sentiment is, I suppose, hard to avoid for someone who grew up in the era of American made, of American manufacturing might. When Detroit meant cars, Pittsburgh steel, and Akron tires. And when Worcester made a lot of stuff, including wire (at Thompson Wire, where my father worked); combat boots (H.H. Brown, where I worked the line one summer); and pocketbooks (made in downtown Worcester at the Davey’s factory).

So I understand that making stuff – tangible things that people actually need and use – is good. So I laud Shinola for making it in America, and wish them all the success in the world.

Still, the type of manufacturing we need to grow is not fine leather goods and pricey bicycles.

It’s the hard stuff, too: scientific instruments, aircraft, machine tools.

Nice to have Shinola shining bright out there in the Motor. The goods that Shinola manufacturers appear to be anything but shit.

Still, there is much about our economy that just doesn’t work. When so much of our job growth comes from unskilled, low pay service sector jobs, we just don’t know shit from Shinola.

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