FLINT, Michigan—Joe Garza quickly covers three fingers with the tips of rubber gloves and straps on a shine rag. Diligently working, he applies the wax with his fingers, takes a large shoe brush to fill in the gaps and cracks and finishes up the shine with a fast swipe of a polishing rag. Before his customer steps down from the stand, he takes a blackened toothbrush, dips it in the can of wax and brushes the stitching on the shoes for a perfect finish.
Garza, 69, has owned his shoe shine business for over 36 years. Now located at Bishop Airport, he also has built two other successful businesses, put his six children through college, and built a happy life for himself and his family.
A native Texan, Garza has been all over the country. He attended school through the third grade and worked as a migrant worker in his teens. That's how he first visited Michigan and thought it was the cleanest state he had ever seen.
Years later, Garza was working in Yakima, Wash., painting and repairing fiberglass when he had the opportunity to return to Michigan. His employer sent Garza and his family here to work at a factory—but when they arrived, the factory closed. They were stuck.
One day while he was at the Meijer located on Pierson Road, Garza noticed a shoe shine stand and spoke to his wife about the possibility of buying it. He had always wanted to be a shoe shine man.
Garza found the owner of the stand, who offered him a job. Garza had his first gig shining shoes and he split all of his profits with the owner down the middle, even tips. After working and saving, Garza started his own business at the former Sheraton Hotel across the street and eventually moved to Bishop Airport.
“A lot of changes have come since I’ve been around,” he says.
Garza is a renaissance man of sorts. During the construction of the new terminal, he was in charge of construction clean up. He also started a luggage return company for the airport and the skycap, both around 1985.
He is also an innovator. Four years after beginning his shoe shining journey, he grew tired of his bloodied and dirty fingertips. He developed his own system of protecting his fingers to keep them clean and injury-free, utilizing partial gloves and a wrist band to secure his shining rag.
After developing more experience and methods, Garza realized that the shoe polish he was using wasn’t up to snuff. It would crack, scuff and easily wear. Instead of searching for a solution, he created one: Joe’s Enduro Wax.
Garza began concocting his own wax at home from raw materials 20 years ago. He found that his combination of materials and the application of heat to his service made a shine that lasted an incredibly long time. Garza hopes to land a deal with the military to provide them with his specialty shoe wax.
Just two years ago, Garza was diagnosed with cancer but it has since gone into remission. At 69 years old, he has no intention of stopping. In fact, his check-ups are a bit tedious to him.
“I’m not ready to leave. I’ll do what I have to do to survive… I live life. I have a lot of grandkids. I have a lot of things to live for,” he smiles.
“Life is so good, the older you get the better it is.”