Phila. takes a shine to an unemployed Internet celebrity

Edward Smith, Jr.(left), best known to his clientele as "Junior," shines at Coldwell Banker Preferred in Center City.

What makes Philly so special is that we’re part Rocky, part Will Smith, and all heart.

We are the city of underdogs, where everyone rises to a challenge no matter what the circumstances.

And despite some pretty rough news we’ve had to endure during the past week, there is more than a glimmer of hope that Philadelphians get it – both those that are down and out as well as those that want to help them.

I’m talking about Edward Smith, Jr., affectionately known as “Junior” or “Glass.”

Thanks to a Facebook posting from Philadelphia-based publicist Peter Breslow, Junior is no longer just a face in the crowd – even though Junior is now technically an unemployed man shining shoes near the corner of 18th and Chestnut.

This is because of what Breslow said yesterday to his community of over 2,300 Facebook friends – a posting that I had seen because of a message from reader Denise Baron.

“This is one of the best guys I know,” said Breslow. “His name in Junior, and he has been shining my shoes for 20 years. His boss closed the shop where he worked for 13 years at 18th and Chestnut without warning last Friday, and he is sitting out on the corner of 18th and Chestnut Streets shining shoes in front of the closed store. Go there and get a shine even if you don't need one. Help this awesome guy out. He is unquestionably one of the nicest people I've ever met.”

Within hours, Breslow’s posting had over a hundred comments and 42 shares. Junior was quickly becoming a local Internet celebrity – even going viral on Twitter.  And for good reason, as I was about to find out.

Within minutes of speaking with Breslow, I rushed to the now closed shoe store where Junior worked. In  front of a “store for rent sign” was Junior, with a make-shift office consisting of a padded, folding chair for his clients and a box that Junior was sitting on. His client, a man who only identified himself as Adam, said that he’s been seeing Junior for almost 20 years – the same amount of time as Breslow. Humble and concentrating on shining Adam’s shoes, Junior told me his story, while dragging a cigarette from his other hand.

Junior, 49 and from North Philly, was humble about his newfound celebrity. “I keep it real, man,” he told me, adding, “I treat everybody nice, and I do a great job. If you have a good character, good things happen to you, even in the baddest of times. I found out last Monday that I didn’t have no job. So I just whipped out my box. It keeps me busy, man.”

Several people stepped up to the plate yesterday.

Big time.

Minutes later I met with Colin Eisenberg, the manager from Boyds Philadelphia – the landmark clothing store around the corner on Chestnut Street. “We have talked to him about an opportunity in the fall – especially on weekends – when we’ve done in the past for shoe shines. We have the set-up so we’ll be visiting that again come September with the owners.”

A few minutes later, I stopped into Blue Sole Shoes, across the street from Boyds. I chatted with the store’s owner, Steve Jamison – a man I’ve known for over a decade. Remarkably, Jamison was meeting with Junior shortly after my meeting with him for – get this – a potential full-time gig.

“I’ve known him for years,” said Jamison of Junior, adding, “I have a shoe store. I know there would be a great connection between what his services are and my shoe store. I know about the owner of the shoe repair shop that he used to work in … closing down … suddenly, unexpectedly, without notice and he’s basically out of a job. I mean the guy is shining shoes on the street. He can’t stay there forever. So I want someone to say, ‘Listen, if you want an opportunity to work here, you got it.’”

I had to ask Jamison why a quiet, unassuming shoe shine guy has garnered such positive attention. To him, it was pretty clear. “Why him? I think because he’s a nice guy, quite frankly. A lot of people know him. They know about him – men, especially, since they go to get their shoes shined.”

Then Jamison cut to the chase.

“They like to see people who just don’t give up,” Jamison said. “Why is Philadelphia so interested in him specifically? Because Philly has a heart. We understand. We get it that there are people out here that have a lot of heart. And as long as we see that in people, we are willing to support them no matter what – from our sports teams to retailers. If you’ve got heart, we’re here for you.”

After leaving Jamison’s store, I discovered that Junior was on his way the Broad and Walnut location of real estate brokerage Coldwell Banker Preferred. Junior had been invited to shine the shoes of an entire team of agents, according to manager Jeremy Bowers. “I have about dozen agents right now getting their shoes done, and I will be last,“ Bowers messaged me, adding, “I did this because this man could have just given up and complained. Instead he had the desire and motivation and went back to work, shining shoes on the sidewalk when the store was closed. I am going to have him back next Tuesday for [our] office meeting and hope others help this hard working man.”

It was Bowers’ final comment that will forever stay in my memory. “It’s always good to help other good people. Life is too short not to.”

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