Robert 'Peanut' Seay, owner of Red's Jazz Shoe Shine Parlor in the Fisher Building, says he can shine any kind of shoe. (Photos by Neal Rubin)
Peanut says he knows the stories about Red better than anyone. Peanut says he shines shoes better, too, when he gets the chance.
Right now, Robert (Peanut) Seay has time to talk. It’s mid-afternoon, and only two customers all day have walked their needy footwear into Red’s Jazz Shoe Shine Parlor.
That would be the Red’s in the basement of the Fisher Building. South entrance, past the guard desk, down the stairs, between the men’s and ladies’ rooms, across from the FedEx drop.
There’s another Red’s less than two miles away, on Oakland and Euclid. And that Red’s is a few blocks south of the abandoned shell of the original, where the late Willie “Red” Thomas welcomed mayors, Motown stars and Malcolm X.
“You see Red’s name, you know what kind of shine you’re going to get,” Peanut says. “Best shine in town, right here.”
In Red’s day, a good shine parlor was a social club, same as a good barber shop. These days people wear sneakers to work and the young men in Peanut’s Highland Park neighborhood want him to tone down the gloss.
“They tell me, ‘You got my shoes too shiny,’ ” he says. “They say, “Everybody’s going to think I’m the police.’ ”
Pictures tell of better days
Peanut, 54, started snapping a rag when he was 14. Red was his uncle, and Coleman Young was a regular: Always Johnston & Murphy lace-ups, always black.
Peanut and the rest of Red’s relatives and acolytes earned some spending money while they learned the trade and figured out a bit about life.
“A lot of stars and stuff,” he says, and they all put their Italian calfskin two-tones on one at a time. The Temptations would croon on the sidewalk while they waited for a seat, and Aretha Franklin used to swing by and sing with the jukebox. “She had a crush on one of the guys, I heard.”
Now Red is gone — cancer, at 77, in 2006 — and Peanut and the others have scattered. Peanut kept the wooden sign from above the long, padded bench where the customers sat, and it hangs above his bench at the Fisher, with its drawing of the man himself in his big eyeglasses and a baseball cap with “Red” across the crown.
“I know how to do every kind of shoe out there,” he says. The young men want him to spiff up their suede Timberlands, and he will, but it’s the $6 buff and shine that takes him back.
He has the quick hands of a pickpocket, the rhythm of a drummer and the big, wide swings of a pendulum. There’s a CD player on a side table — Stevie Wonder today, not jazz — and a reassuring aroma of leather and polish.
Mayor Young’s picture is on the wall behind him; Jackie Wilson’s, too. Red, who opened his first little two-seat shack in 1950, used to drive him around. Nearby, Muhammad Ali throws a right cross.
“You got your good days and your bad days,” Peanut says. “A lot of people don’t know where I’m at.”
'Very competitive' business
North of the Fisher and a few blocks across Woodward Avenue, Jemale Jones has to open the door of Red’s Jazz Shoe Shine from the inside. It locks automatically when it closes.
The owner, David Boggan, is another of Red’s nephews. A third, Tony Seay, was the last owner of the original Red’s; according to Peanut, these days he’s driving limos and party vans.
“You still got some of the older guys who come in and hang out,” says Jones, 33. “They talk politics, but it’s not how it used to be.”
If there’s a surprise next month, a second Red’s will get visits from another mayor. Benny Napoleon’s autographed photo sits in a frame atop the air conditioning unit, and Jones says he’s a regular.
“It’s very competitive,” Jones says. He’s talking about the shoe-shine business, not the election.
“Peanut’s like an uncle to me,” he says, but if you want something done right, this is where you come: