In his long life, Jimmy Brown has seen more shoes than Thom McAn and Jimmy Choo combined. For 32 years, Jimmy owned and operated a shoeshine stand on the much-trod section of Pine Avenue just north of First Street. During that span he brought a shine to Lord knows how many pairs of shoes, and divide that towering number by two and you’ll find the number of smiles he brought to Downtown businessmen and visiting conventioneers and anyone else who wears shoes that can hold a shine these days.
Jimmy’s long weekday trek between his home in Rialto and his stand outside L’Opera Italian Restaurant required a couple of Metro train rides since he quit driving a couple of years ago.
Last week, on Sept. 30, he was waiting on a platform between train rides and sat on a bench to rest. He slumped over and paramedics came to try to resuscitate him, but that was the end of the line for Jimmy Brown. A doctor determined he died of natural causes. He was 87.
“I’ve known him for over 30 years,” said L’Opera owner Terry Antonelli. “He was the most kindhearted man you’ll ever meet. I was with him the day before he died and he seemed, I don’t know, a little lost. He had difficulty staying on the topic.”
His daughter Carol Brown, with whom Jimmy lived, said her father had gone back to visit family in Arkansas during the July 4 holiday, and she said that the trip had taken a toll on him. “He aged so much between July 4 and September,” she said. “He still ate and continued his routine, but there was just something about the way he looked the Saturday before he died that made me concerned.”
He was a good father, said Carol, and a busy one. He is survived by seven children and preceded in death by his wife, Cora Belle Brown, in 2002.
“He was funny, he loved to tell stories about things that had happened throughout his life to all us kids,” she said. That included a tour during the Korean War and a brief career as an auto mechanic in Wilmington, said Carol. “But shining shoes is what he loved.”
Dr. Henry Johnson, whose practice is just above the shoeshine stand at 115 Pine Ave., said he always enjoyed talking with Jimmy every morning. “He was a great guy,” said Johnson. “We always tried to help him out when we could—send him chicken salad, a sandwich, things like that.”
As one might expect, Jimmy was a great conversationalist—once you got him going. “He wasn’t much at starting a conversation, but he sure could finish one,” said Johnson.
The shoeshine stand’s future now is in the hands of his friend and protegé Darius Bost, who had been helping Jimmy shine shoes for about seven years.
And despite the fact that fewer people wear shineable shoes these days, Bost said business was always brisk at the stand. “People from the corporate world, gentlemen like judges and attorneys, they still get their shoes shined. Salesmen, even if they’re wearing jeans, still wear shoes that need shining. And we get a lot of people from the conventions.”
Bost said that the TV and movie trope about shoeshine men knowing the scoop more than anyone else is an accurate one.
“Yeah, we’ve heard a lot of things before anyone else hears them,” he said. “People around here call us the Mayors of Pine Avenue.”