The Shoe Shine Kid

Cameron Harmon moves from a polished boot to an unpolished one during a summer day’s work Tuesday at the Land Title Plaza in downtown Walla Walla. The 13-year-old boy is a Pioneer Middle School student who started a business as a shoe-shiner with the help of his “Friends” mentor Sandy Trentham.

Cameron Harmon moves from a polished boot to an unpolished one during a summer day’s work Tuesday at the Land Title Plaza in downtown Walla Walla. The 13-year-old boy is a Pioneer Middle School student who started a business as a shoe-shiner with the help of his “Friends” mentor Sandy Trentham. Photo by Jeff Horner.

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WALLA WALLA — “Anybody need a shoe shinnnnne?” the boy bellows from a brick perch at Land Title Plaza.

Cameron Harmon, downtown’s young entrepreneur, teeters along the edge of the giant stone planter, bobbing and weaving through the tree branches as he calls out to potential customers.

He is without scuffed shoes and he squanders no down time. That was one of the first lessons the 13-year-old got shortly after launching his shoe shine business at the end of June.

Between cleaning and buffing from a stool on the bricks of the plaza, Harmon busies himself, studying spelling, maps and vocabulary and, yes, honing the marketing techniques that include calling out to passersby.

Sometimes he makes up jingles, he said, his bespectacled eyes peeking out from under the brim of a digital camo print bucket hat on a recent morning. He demonstrated one he made up to the tune of the Beastie Boys’ “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party).”

“You want ‘em shined. For your right. You want ‘em shi-ined.”

The enthusiasm from the kid with the smattering of freckles across his nose shoots across First Avenue and Main Street like rays from the summer sun.

He is the picture of youth with golden waves to his shoulders and an attention span that darts with the sounds and sights of a downtown alive with activity.

But he is every bit a businessman, from targeting his service to an under-served market and nailing down a prime location. He paid $45 of his own money for the business permit from the city.

He earns $2.50 a pair on a standard shine and takes his earnings to the bank every Thursday. Three quarters of it is deposited. The rest is his to spend or save as he chooses.

His last major purchase was a birthday present for one of his sisters.

More than a story about a new service, this is one about friendship and a future.

Those who stop for a shine or drop their shoes for pickup later — and that’s an average of two to three people in the three-hour shifts Mondays and two-hour shifts the other weekdays — will notice a man who joins Harmon every day at the spot.

Sandy Trentham has been mentoring Harmon through the nonprofit Friends of Children of Walla Walla program. Two years ago last June the two were paired up through the program. They spent an hour or so a week together, as per the terms of the program designed to infuse positive role models and influences into the lives of local young people.

Last summer Harmon lamented that he wished there was work he could do to make money in the summer. Trentham, a retired international businessman who continues to sit on boards of small companies as an independent director, said he’d give it some thought.

Once the idea came to Trentham, he let Harmon take the lead. The teen’s mom and dad were in complete support, Trentham said.

“My role was that of guide after that,” Trentham said.

On his own Harmon came up with a business plan. He evaluated the startup costs, shoe shine box and working equipment, and determined how many pairs of shoes he would need to break even. He worked through the winter to earn the money he would need to start the business. Then he took to the Internet to absorb everything he could about shining shoes.

The final step was finding the right location before filing for the business permit. They knew it should be downtown. “Most people in the summer don’t wear leather shoes, so it had to be somewhere where there would be businessmen,” Trentham said.

They knew it should be on Main Street. But where? The duo spent an hour or so counting foot traffic at Second Avenue and Main and at Land Title Plaza.

The latter had more people, but it also had something else: that tree. In the sweltering heat it provides a shady oasis. During a recent sprinkle of rain, it was cover from the showers.

Every week day, Harmon hauls in a plastic bin in which he carries: two shine brushes, one brown and one black; a rag to wipe the shoes; a collection of circular tins of polish; saddle soap; shoe horns; a chamois; and cotton balls. These items are all removed from the bin, which when flipped over doubles as a small table to display the tools of the trade.

Harmon sits on a small stool next to it. In front of him is a shoe shine box where those who want to sit under the shade tree can perch their feet, or where he sets the shoes that have been left for shining. He also keeps a rack set up to set the shoes once he’s finished.

On days when Trentham can’t be there, other friends or family members of Harmon’s to fill in. That includes his mom, Jennifer Dormon.

“She comes here sometimes and watches me,” Harmon says, unable to keep a grin from bursting through. “She loves watching me.”

The transformation from a boy bounding with energy into a focused worker is, indeed, transfixing, Trentham said.

“For me personally — it’s the best part of the week,” Trentham said. “I can do my own work just as well here as I work from home. The neatest thing of all is how serious he has become.”

As the service continues, more business people are using it. Among the first customers was Phil Wasser, who owns Land Title Plaza. He brought piles of his own shoes initially. A retired doctor passing downtown with his grandchildren ended up making the trek to his lunch destination in his socks — doubling the fee of the shine for the promise of delivery to Olive Marketplace & Café. Friends Executive Director Mark Brown is a loyal client who recently dropped off two pairs to be shined on the same day a UPS driver dropped off his worn boots.

Once school starts, Harmon plans to continue his work after school and on the weekends. He said the money in the bank may become a nest egg for college. The ambition is something Trentham said is coming more into focus with the business.

“Just the dedication to himself is a great lesson.”

Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at vickihillhouse@wwub.com or 526-8321.

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