In Character with Sammy Sklover

A conversation with an interesting Portlander
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT, Professional bootblack Sammy Sklover shines boots -- and so much more. Here, Sklover shines a customer's boots in front of Powell's Books in Northwest Portland.

North Portland resident Sammy Sklover moved here from Washington, D.C., a year and a half ago. These days, you'll find him on Hawthorne Boulevard, sometimes in front of Powell's bookstore, and occasionally at Saturday Market. Sklover has found his niche in Portland -- and it's not exactly what you might think.

Portland Tribune: What precisely do you do on the streets of Portland?

Sammy Sklover: I'm a bootblack during the day.

Tribune: Is that the same as a shoe shiner?

Sklover: A shoe shiner is someone who puts polish on shoes and buffs it out. A bootblack is more about maintaining the leather.

Tribune: Did you always care about footwear?

Sklover: Before I moved to Portland, I would not maintain my shoes. Right before I moved here, I destroyed my favorite pair of combat boots.

Tribune: How can you destroy combat boots? They're made to withstand anything.

Sklover: They might be made to withstand anything, but like changing your oil, you need to maintain your leather once in a while.

Tribune: You hadn't.

Sklover: Not at all, and I decided never again. So I started shining my shoes, and I liked it, and I started shining my friends' shoes. Originally, I would throw polish on shoes and buff it out. I started as a shoe shiner. Later on, I gained an apprenticeship as a bootblack in the leather community.

Tribune: Wait a minute. When people think about the leather community these days, they're not talking about shoes, but about a subculture of the gay community.

Sklover: Yes. As a bootblack, a lot of times I maintain more than boots. I have treated my fair share of corsets and chaps.

Tribune: Anything more unusual?

Sklover: What is more unusual than polishing a leather corset?

Tribune: Good point. I've always wondered what it is about leather and some members of the gay community. Why leather?

Sklover: It might be about dominance.

Tribune: But leather itself doesn't say dominance or submissive. It's just a material.

Sklover: But maintaining someone else's does. When I'm bootblacking at an event or a party, I maintain the leather ... on their body.

Tribune: Oh, I get it. A favorite customer?

Sklover: Last summer, I went to the Rainbow Gathering in St. Helens and I brought my kit with me. I'm walking through the woods and I see this guy and his boots really needed to be shined. I asked and he said, "Yes."

He was laying down, and it's really hard to shine someone's boots when they are laying down. After I got done with the first coat on one foot, he says, "Hey, let me make this easier."

And he pulls off his prosthetic leg. And I shined his other boot while it was still attached to his foot but not on him.

Last weekend, I did my first blind person's boots, and you have to make sure the work is extra good.

Tribune: But they can't see it.

Sklover: They can feel it. Have you ever had your shoes shined by a bootblack? It's as much a foot massage as it is a shoe shine.

Tribune: Most unusual thing a customer has said to you?

Sklover: I've had two people confess they had serial killer thoughts.

Tribune: While you were working on their shoes?

Sklover: Sometimes people view their bootblack as a psychiatrist.

Tribune: Back to the potential serial killers. What did you say to them?

Sklover: What do you say to someone who tells you they have homicidal tendencies? You keep your mouth shut and finish the boots as fast as possible.