Column: Ocean Beach legend “Shoeshine Willie” closes shop

An Ocean Beach monument has closed forever.

Willie’s Shoe Shine, a small shed in the parking lot of the Mallory furniture store on Newport Avenue, has closed its one door.

“Shoeshine” Willie Washington has officially retired. For up to five decades, the retired Marine, now in his 80s, either worked in Ocean Beach at a shoe repair store or ran his own drive / walk business in a parking shed.

He has become a legend and an icon and has even been referred to as the unofficial mayor of OB.

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

“He’s been a mainstay of Newport for decades,” recalls Frank Gormlie, editor of “OB Rag,” who recalls Willie heading around the corner to buy one of the papers he had been selling for a quarter.

The shoe store operator was so popular with beach residents that they twice rallied to help him get through tough times by raising funds.

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

In 2016, he nearly lost his business again when San Diego inspectors discovered his shed did not comply with city code.

One of those who managed to lobby for Willie was former San Diego City Council member Byron Wear.

A petition was circulated, funds were raised and, in the end, the city authorities signed. They determined that the hangar was not used for commercial transactions but for storage. Willie posted himself outside, where he met clients and conducted business.

“He’s a great guy and the community supports him,” says Wear, a longtime resident of the area.

About four years ago, Willie suffered a medical condition that caused him to shut down his business for about a year while recovering in a convalescent home.

Michael Haas, owner of the Ocean Beach apartment complex where Willie has lived for years, renovated his home while Willie was recovering. He painted walls, replaced flooring, and bought new furniture to make Willie feel comfortable when he returned.

Poor health, followed by the pandemic, led Willie Washington to retire from his shoe shining business in the mid-1980s.

(Michael Haas)

“After he got back, he went to the cabin part-time,” says Haas. “He just liked being there, socializing and talking to people. ”

He was using supplemental oxygen and needed to be transported to and from his hangar, but continued to work, setting his own days and hours.

“Everyone in the neighborhood knew him. People loved him, ”Haas says. “He sold poppies for Veterans Day. He sold hats and T-shirts with the inscription “Willie’s Shoe Shine”. Local restaurants gave him free food … He always sat there like a sage, sharing life stories and giving advice to people.

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

That hiatus turned into his permanent retirement last weekend.

“He came on Saturday to empty his things from 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 will likely be demolished.

Willie said his farewell to the neighborhood via a video posted to the Social Ocean Beach Facebook group by a friend, Stephanie Krause.

Although he’s long gone, “I haven’t forgotten any of you,” Willie said. He then gave his signature advice, urging parents to teach their children to love each other and not to fight.

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

The video drew multiple views and comments on the many lives Willie has touched, his friendly smile and positivity, great advice, wisdom, warmth, kindness and prayers.

“I first met you when I was a kid in the 1970s. You’ve always been nice to the kids in the neighborhood,” one said. “Willie is Ocean Beach’s treasure,” noted another.

It wasn’t Willie’s last farewell. He has promised to return to participate in the community parade on December 4.

During this time, he will continue to live in Ocean Beach, where his landlord promises to let him stay rent-free for the rest of Willie’s life.

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