- The Washington Times - Monday, June 22, 2009

The shoes around us — sneakers and oxfords and heels — are designed to be pretty but doomed to be dirty. While we toss dirty clothes in the wash, we relegate dirty shoes to the closet or the trash bin.

Sheldon Watkins, 39, president of SpiffyKicks in Capitol Heights, thinks there’s a better way: scrubbing shoes and making them look new, so you don’t have to buy new.

“We’re not just about slowing it down on the way to the landfill — we’re about extending the life of the shoe,” Mr. Watkins said.

“We rejuvenate your shoe,” said Stephen Brown, 46, who is Mr. Watkin’s partner. He invented his shoe-cleaning compounds in 1994, ran the business in Baltimore-area shopping malls during the late 1990s and has worked with Mr. Watkins since 2003. They just opened their new location at 8531 Edgeworth Drive. The pair use a secret process to clean up shoes and extend their life.

In a recession, people are more likely to forgo trips to the mall and spend some extra months in their old shoes. The SpiffyKicks proprietors think that’s a good idea, but they don’t see why old shoes need to look old. It’s better, they say, to let them come back to life.

For $26.99, your shoes are cleaned, relaced, shaped to their original form and sent back to you — a reasonable investment in footwear that would have been thrown away. They’re cleaning 70 to 80 pairs a month.

“The economy does affect us. But the worst of times are the best of times for us. If you’ve got 10 pairs of shoes in your closet, you shouldn’t be buying no more,” Mr. Watkins argued, saying SpiffyKicks “helps the environment and the economy at the same time.”

The spiffiness extends to their store, too. The former garage now has the look and feel of a night club. The proprietors show off the freshened shoes from behind a smooth white counter aglow with light. Fresh paint coats the walls and ceiling, which Mr. Sheldon and Mr. Watkins built from recycled materials and lumber the previous tenant left behind. A smooth mix of Michael Jackson and Justin Timberlake thumps from the high-end sound system.

The spacious room is a sales tool to target Mr. Brown’s customer base. They do the actual shoe cleaning in a room in the back.

Mr. Brown complained that there are no tags on shoes telling users how to care for them and lengthen their lives. A shirt or pair of slacks, he said, tells you with its tag how to wash and repair it, but old shoes are just left in the closet.

“That’s where we come in,” Mr. Watkins said. “There’s a need, and we went after it.”

Mr. Watkins looks for an example of what their formula can do, so Mr. Brown steps quickly to the back of the store and returns with a tan Timberland boot. Mr. Watkins slowly turns the boot, pointing to a line of demarcation that runs from the toe up the tongue, and starts again above the heel. On one side the suede is gray, dirty and rough; the other is clean, and Mr. Watkins’ finger leaves trails and whirls in the fibers of the leather.

“It’s a soft-rub process to wake up the suede,” Mr. Brown said proudly. “The suede is alive, and we can get it to look like it used to look.

“We take away what’s harming it — paint, sweat and stains,” Mr. Watkins said.

They repeat a similar process for each type of shoe, taking a few days to clean each pair in the back.

But what’s in the back?

Mr. Brown said his patented formula and process, a gentle wash in citrus, aloe and sassafras derivatives, is water-soluble and includes no phosphates. Other shoe cleaners might use ethylene and petroleum products, but “we don’t use any of that,” he said.

“Everything is water-soluble, and they’re plant-based chemicals,” Mr. Brown said. “Anything you can get on, we can get off.”

Other than that, Mr. Watkins and Mr. Brown won’t say how they do it.

“We’re forever researching and trying to find better ways to clean shoes,” Mr. Watkins said. “We’ll begin with shoes decrepit and torn down, then bury them to see how they biodegrade.”

Maybe it doesn’t matter that no one knows what the partners are doing with the piles of shoes they have in the back.

“We haven’t heard one dissatisfied customer,” Mr. Brown said.

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