Istanbul’s shoe shiners hold ground despite falling sales
ISTANBUL – Anadolu AgencyIstanbul’s numerous street shoe polishers, men of hard graft perched on small stools with their gear, waiting for customers with dusty footwear, are struggling against a sharp decline in sales as more and more people opt for comfortable sneakers.
Can Çağlayan, who was only 10 years old when he grabbed a shoeshine kit and began working to support his divorced mother, now supports his two children through an education – something he never had access to as a former child laborer.
Working from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day in the touristic Eminönü area of Istanbul, Fevzi Usta, another shoe shiner in his mid-70s, says he was forced to choose this profession because he could not obtain an education beyond fifth grade.
“I couldn’t afford to buy books because my family had no money, I would use my friends’ books,” Fevzi says.
Now suffering from a drop in customers, small earnings and long hours on the busy streets, the number of shoe shiners in Istanbul has dropped over the years, both men agreed.
One of the reasons behind Can and Fevzi’s suffering business is what has saved many people from aching feet: Sports shoes.
“[Business] was fruitful in the past,” Can said as he opened a drawer in his box to reveal 50 Turkish liras ($17) -- the total amount of money he made for the day.
“But life has become so expensive. I can’t even afford to buy meat anymore,” he added, complaining that “everybody is today using sports shoes.” Accordingly, his only customers are now lawyers looking to shine their leather shoes at the last minute before a meeting.
Rakip Sanır, a 76-year-old shoe shiner who also works in Eminönü, said the only hope he has of maintaining his business is tourism. Visitors will often stop and make conversation with him and if he is charming enough, he can earn a small tip.
“Business used to be very good back in the old days but now everybody is wearing these Chinese sport shoes and work has fallen by 50 percent,” Sanır said.
‘Dropping the brush’
But shoe shiners may not have only economic forces to blame for their woes. Many tourists – as well as unsuspecting locals – have been snared by a notorious trick used by many ruthless Istanbul shoe shiners: Some have been known to “accidentally” drop their brushes in front of passersby, who then dutifully pick it up and return it. The target of the ruse then receives the offer of a shoe shine as thanks for their honesty, before being charged far over the odds for the “complementary” shine.
The exact number of shoe shiners in Istanbul is not known but they remain - for now - part of the city’s furniture, still on the busy streets with their Ottoman-style boxes and small chairs.