Blue Route

By Sara Pseudonym.

You keep replaying through the days
That have brought you to this place
You shine your shoes and shave your face
Throw on a suit
You used to be some kind of joke
And all the depths you’ve come to know
You wandered down an open road and you kept going

What happened to you
What happened to you
What happened to you

From The Blue Route by The Walkmen

Dr. Shoe Shine

By David Michael Newstead.

Bernard Gray is a D.C. native that goes by Dr. Shoe Shine. Bernard’s uncle taught him how to shine shoes in 1980 and he’s made a living at it ever since. In all that time, the price has only gone up from $3 to $7. He’s had some of the same customers for the last twenty years. And he’s shined shoes for a few famous people like Muhammad Ali and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

I first met Bernard when I was walking down 19th Street in Washington and heard one of his many one-liners to passersby.

“Sir, you dropped something,” he said. “Your shine!”

The comment made me realize that I’d never gotten a shoe shine before. I’d never even thought about it. So, not long after, I had the opportunity to try it out and to sit down for a conversation with the resident expert in our nation’s capital – Bernard Gray.

On the surface, Dr. Shoe Shine has a lifetime’s worth of slogans, jokes, and rhymes, all coming from a self-described people person focused on customer satisfaction.

“If the shoe doesn’t shine, you don’t pay a dime,” was another saying I heard.

But the more we spoke, I got a better picture of Bernard’s background and how the world has changed to some degree.

“When I started out, I was shining shoes for a lot of lawyers and salesmen. But this is a dying art. People ain’t taking care of their shoes like they used to,” he explained.

I asked why.

“They just don’t care,” he said. “There used to be competition out here. Nine other guys. You can save a lot of money, you know? Gotta take care of the leather. Know the leather, the different shades, and types. A pair of shoes can last fifteen years and still look sharp.”

While we talked, Bernard went through the process of polishing my dress shoes and occasionally chatted with his friend, Lorry, a fellow shoe shiner and D.C. native. I was seated on a folding chair curbside with my legs were propped up on a wooden footrest. There was a small pile of Kiwi shoe polish cans beside us along with the various implements of this procedure: a brush, pieces of cloth, a small sponge.

I asked more questions.

“In the summer, it’s slow in the daytime and picks up in the evening when people get off work,” he told me. “Goes up and down though. In the winter, we get a lot more customers who are women. They’ll drop off a pile of boots and we do a delivery service. It’s all word of mouth. You know, I’ve had some of the same customers for years. Even if they don’t live in D.C. anymore, they’ll still come by when they’re in town.”

It occurred to me then that this job being performed had a subtle impact on how professional men and women present themselves. And you don’t really notice the difference until you notice the difference. To quote a significant line from the movie, The Shawshank Redemption: “I mean, seriously, how often do you really look at a man’s shoes?” But they can be the key factor between dapper-looking and drab, between a man who’s put-together and a man who’s thrown-together. And it may be just a finishing touch, but it’s an important one.

Bernard also had this insight. “I respect my uncle for teaching me this skill. Even when I was living on the street, I could work. He’s still working too, shining shoes in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. He visits D.C. sometimes. That’s what my uncle taught me: No matter what you do take pride in your work.”

It was around that time that I stared down at my shoes. Recently, I had tried polishing them myself. Then, I saw Bernard’s work and there was really no comparison. My shoes, which are two years old, looked brand new and flawless. Since 1980, Dr. Shoe Shine has seen a lot of people walk by, some of them arriving to D.C., and others leaving it. So when he told me to look my best and take pride in what I do, those are words to live by.

Bernard Gray works in the Dupont Circle area around 19th and M.


A Conversation with Craig Martin

By David Michael Newstead.

I first learned about Quinntessential Gentleman in 2013. I was working on a book about shaving, which inevitably drew me to the Baltimore-based clothing store and barbershop. There, I received my first ever straight-razor shave and I was really impressed by the experience. The store was this unique time capsule of classic styles and a sort of anchor to men at their best. There were accessories and ties, a cadre of expert barbers and a pool table stretched along part of the waiting room. Not long after that, I sought out the owner and discovered that there’s a compelling story at the heart of his business, which is approaching its tenth anniversary next year.

Quinntessential Gentleman is spelled wrong. The owner, Craig Martin, told me that people point this out to him every so often with a sorry-to-have-to-tell-you-this tone in their voice. Fortunately though, the error is intentional. His business is named after his mother, Quinn, and is a lasting reminder of the lessons she tried to instill in her son. His father worked in advertising on Madison Avenue and between the two of them, they raised an entrepreneur who has made being well dressed and well groomed the foundation for a successful store.

“I had the idea for about 20 years and I always knew I wanted to own my own business,” he explained.

But it wasn’t until 2003 that Craig began outlining his concept in more detail. In 2004, he quit his corporate job at an aerospace firm and devoted his entire life savings to the venture. By 2005, Quinntessential Gentleman was open for business and it had a slow, steadily growing clientele of professionals. There was one barber and the store was much smaller then.

A decade later, Craig Martin is giving me a guided tour of their expanding facilities. What started as just an idea has grown into a 12,000 square foot, five-story castle near Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, gradually taking over the other floors in the building. Today, there’s 20 staff members. And as we walked around, Craig pointed out various features of his business with unstated pride: a wet bar, a cigar lounge, master tailoring station, grooming areas, boutique clothing selection, and spa. I looked over at a table for playing cards and nearby there was a chalk board decorated by local artists hanging on the wall. Beyond that, a sea of multicolored bow ties.

“The concept behind the whole store is value,” he told me. “What is the value proposition of each item I carry? Does it have history? Quality? Does it tell a story?” Craig emphasized this by picking up a Tissot watch, which has been crafting time pieces since the 1850’s.

Throughout our conversation, the idea of value proposition was turned inward on the store itself. History, quality, and a sense of story became very apparent and the arc of one businessman’s life thus far took definite shape. He tells me about a serious cut on his neck from using a straight-razor on himself in college. Knowing the risks, Craig now meticulously trains his staff in proper technique and is the personal practice dummy before men like me ever receive a straight-razor shave. He talked about being a parent and how his own father was initially reluctant, but eventually came around to the idea behind his now thriving business. There were the early and sometimes slow beginnings for the store, the Great Recession, and today resounding success.

When I asked him about the future, Craig explained his vision of a boutique men’s department store where they took care of people from head-to-toe: from the hat they’re wearing down to their shoes and everything in-between. What he highlighted most though concerned building confidence. All the products and services at Quinntessential Gentleman are just building blocks for men to present themselves at their best. It could be through a haircut, a nice tie, or new suit, but I think it’s a value proposition that’s worth considering.

Quinntessential Gentleman
31 South Calvert Street in Baltimore
For Appointments, Call 410-685-7428