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Heyl: Shine man's days get too quiet

| Tuesday, June 10, 2014, 4:18 p.m.
Pete Hilliard, Downtown Macy's shoeshine guy

Three leather chairs, a dozen brushes, several blackened rags and assorted tins of Kiwi shoe polish.

Those are among the items soon to be part of Pete Hilliard's legacy at the Downtown Macy's.

For a quarter of a century, Hilliard has operated a shoeshine stand just off the second- floor escalators. Nothing fancy about it. People sit in a chair, fork over $4.75 and leave a few minutes later with newly shined shoes.

His routine has served him well, but Hilliard, 79, of McKeesport is about to put away the polish. He said Macy's made the decision to shutter the business effective next week, but he isn't upset about being ushered into retirement.

“This profession isn't what it used to be,” he said with a shrug. “It's going away.”

Macy's officials did not immediately return a request for comment on the shoeshine operation's impending demise. But the move makes sense in the wake of recent reports regarding the store's future.

Macy's reportedly is close to selling the 12-story building to a buyer who will convert most of the local landmark into apartments. Retail operations, currently housed on the first six floors, would be consolidated into perhaps three or four.

Hilliard believes the handwriting on the wall is as easy to see as the “Shoe Shine By Pete” sign about to come down from it.

“Nobody has told me anything, but I can sense these things,” he said as we looked across the floor at a menswear department devoid of customers. “I think this store is going away.”

Hilliard is equally pessimistic about the future of the shoeshine trade he learned when he was a teenager, abandoned when he went to work at a mill in McKeesport, then pursued as a vocation when the mill closed.

“It's not like it used to be,” he said. “Used to be you had a lot of people doing this at train stations. You don't see that anymore.”

An unsentimental sort, Hilliard wasn't interested in being overly reflective about his upcoming retirement.

“I'll miss this a little, I guess, but I'll move on,” he said. “What will I do? Live my life, I guess.”

Hilliard said he will miss his regulars, none of whom were around on a quiet Tuesday morning.

That gave him plenty of time to talk, though he made it clear he would rather be plying his trade.

Unfortunately, the lack of foot traffic in what increasingly appears to be a doomed department store wasn't helping him.

“I ain't had no one here yet. What the hell's going on?” he asked, shaking his head.

“I need some dirt on my fingers, boy.”

Eric Heyl is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7857 or eheyl@tribweb.com.

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