Coast Character: Gulfport man a polished shoe shiner since the 1950s

Gulfport man has been shining shoes since the 1950s

jmitchell Journalism_JJuly 12, 2014 

GULFPORT -- Hundreds of people wave and say hello to Louis Whittle as they walk through the Hancock Bank building lobby in downtown Gulfport, but very few stop to appreciate his form of "dying art."

Whittle, 79, has shined shoes in the lobby since before Hurricane Katrina, and he said he will continue to set up shop as long as he is able to work. He used to stay pretty busy, but today he usually sees 10 to 15 customers per week.

Whittle said he learned to shine shoes in the 1950s to earn money to help his mother.

The late Rosa Bell Hicks Reed had 18 children and worked during the day at an oyster factory and at night at the old Paramount Theatre in Gulfport.

"I don't know how she did it, but she did it," he said.

Shoe shining was one of the only jobs Whittle said you could do for decent money.

"We used to shine them for 25 cents," he said.

Now, he charges $5 to shine loafers and $10 to shine boots.

"Polish used to be real cheap," he said. "It ain't cheap no more."

Thursdays are a big day for Whittle because the Rotary Club meets at the building.

Some men who attend the meeting come early to sit for a shoeshine, and others drop off shoes before the meeting to pick up shined when they leave.

He said some men leave tips, but he's just thankful for the business.

"Some will give you $2 or $3," Whittle said. "At Christmas time, some people bring $20 or $30."

Before working in the Hancock Bank building, he shined shoes at the Copa Casino in Gulfport, the old Grand Casino in Gulfport and at Windance Country Club.

Whittle walks from his apartment complex near the Navy base or takes the bus for 75 cents to get to his station.

Because of health issues, he hasn't been able to make it every day to his station, but his regulars return as soon as they see him sitting in his chair.

"They catch me. I've been in and out," he said.

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