Willie Closes His Shoe Shine Shop

by on November 22, 2021 · 3 comments

in Ocean Beach

By Diane Bell / San Diego Union-Tribune / Nov. 20, 2021

An Ocean Beach landmark has closed forever.

Willie’s Shoe Shine, a tiny shed in the parking lot of Mallory’s furniture store on Newport Avenue, has shut its single door.

“Shoeshine” Willie Washington officially has retired. For as many as five decades the retired Marine, now in his mid-80s, has either worked in Ocean Beach in a shoe repair store or run his own drive-by/walk-by business out of a parking lot shed.

He grew into a legend and an icon and even has been referred to as the unofficial mayor of O.B.

Willie, as everyone calls him, always has a smile and a kind word and seems to know everyone, their children and their kids’ children.

“He’s been a mainstay on Newport for decades,” recalls Frank Gormlie, publisher of the “OB Rag,” who remembers Willie walking to the corner to buy one of the newspapers he was selling for a quarter.

So beloved by beach residents was the shoe shed operator that twice they rallied to help him overcome tough times by raising money.

When his original shoe repair shack was destroyed by a fire, later attributed to a transient, the townspeople set up a GoFundMe campaign and worked with Home Depot to buy him a replacement shed.

In 2016, he almost lost his business again when San Diego inspectors discovered his shed wasn’t compliant with the city code.

One of those who successfully lobbied on Willie’s behalf was former San Diego City Council member Byron Wear.

A petition was circulated, money was raised and, in the end, city officials signed off. They determined that the shed wasn’t used for business transactions but for storage. Willie stationed himself outside, where he met with customers and conducted business.

“He’s an all-around good guy, and the community supports him,” says Wear, a longtime area resident.

About four years ago Willie suffered a health setback that caused him to close his business for a year or so as he recovered in a convalescent home.

Michael Haas, who owns the Ocean Beach apartment complex where Willie has lived for years, remodeled his unit while Willie was convalescing. He painted walls, replaced flooring and bought new furniture, so Willie would be comfortable when he returned.

Poor health, followed by the pandemic, led to Willie Washington retiring from his shoe shine business in his mid-’80s.
(Michael Haas)
“After he came back, he would go to the shack part time,” says Haas. “He just liked to be there and socialize and talk to people.”

He was using supplemental oxygen and needed transportation to and from his shed but kept working, setting his own days and hours.

“Everybody in the neighborhood knew him. People loved him,” says Haas. “He sold poppies for Veterans Day. He sold hats and T-shirts that said ‘Willie’s Shoe Shine.’ Local restaurants gave him free food … He was always sitting out there like a wise sage, sharing life’s stories and giving people advice.”

Until COVID-19 broke out, that is. Already in fragile health, the sole proprietor could not risk contact with the public so, like so many other businesses, he took a break.

That hiatus transitioned into his permanent retirement last weekend.

“He came on Saturday to clear his belongings out of the shed,” says Teresa Mallory, who runs the Mallory furniture business on Newport Avenue with her husband. She says the shed is riddled with termites and probably will be torn down.

Willie bid goodbye to the neighborhood via a video posted to the Social Ocean Beach Facebook group by a friend, Stephanie Krause.

Despite being gone a long time, “I haven’t forgotten any of you,” Willie said. He then gave his characteristic words of advice, urging parents to teach their kids to love each other and not to fight.

“I kept it going because I wanted to come back and talk to you,” Willie explained, “let you know how much I loved you, I thought about you.”
He recalled holding children in his arms and on his lap and telling them which way to go. “One thing I told them all: Don’t forget where you come from and don’t forget where you’re going, because one day you’re going to meet your maker … Take care of yourself and of the children and teach them the right way to live and grow.”

The video attracted multiple views and comments about the many lives Willie has touched, his friendly smile and positivity, his excellent advice, his wisdom, warmth, goodness and prayers.

“I first met you as a kid in the’70s. You were always good to the kids in the hood,” said one. “Willie is Ocean Beach’s treasure,” noted another.

It wasn’t Willie’s final farewell. He promised to return to participate in the community holiday parade on Dec. 4.

Meanwhile, he’ll continue living in Ocean Beach, where his landlord vows to let him stay rent-free for the rest of Willie’s life.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Debbie November 23, 2021 at 7:27 am

I always enjoy seeing Willie and talking with him. Such a kind, friendly gentleman! I wish Willie the best. Willie will be missed by many no longer being on Newport at his stand. A thank you Mr. Haas for his generosity.

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Frank Gormlie November 23, 2021 at 10:46 am

It’s true. I used to stand at the corner of Newport and Bacon selling the (original) OB Rag and Willie would always come down from the shoe repair store, smile and hand me a quarter. I would hand him the latest copy and he would walk away. We never talked politics and he and I have always greeted each other warmly over the decades. Wish you the best, Willie. Your shoe shine shack was an institution.

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retired botanist November 23, 2021 at 6:35 pm

yes, he is a remarkable icon of OB! I mean, to have persisted that long in a community with dominant flip-flop footwear, you’ve got to have a LOT going for you, right? Very best wishes to Willie in his retirement, and I hope it serves him well :-)

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