As Victorian-era novelist Charles Dickens once penned, “no one is useless in this world who lightens the burdens of another.” Extending beyond the delivery of an enduring experience in the sphere of fashion and business, Harrolds has long been committed to helping the less fortunate, those who exist on the fringes of our society. In collaboration with the Salvation Army’s 614 project, the Poulakis family has housed a traditional shoe-shine service in front of the Harrolds store at 101 Collins St for over 15 years.
In 2005, members of the Poulakis family had a chance encounter with former addict Neill Martin near Bourke St. Mall, adjacent to their family owned restaurant at the time. Neill had been homeless, shining shoes on the streets of Melbourne with just a box of tools and a cardboard sign.
It’s quite rewarding. I enjoy sitting out here. I feel like I’ve achieved something
Out of goodwill, John Poulakis vowed to bring Neill up to the greener pastures of Collins St, setting up a glass enclosed shoe-shine station out the front of their luxury department store. Soon enough, the shoe-shine service became a fixture of the Paris End, and revamped Neill’s life dramatically. Tragically, Neill passed away in 2011, but the legacy of the project is actively sustained to this very day.
Enter Darren, currently the resident shoe-shiner and cherished Collins St. stalwart. Darren, like many within our community, suffered a harsh induction to life, and was admittedly “wild as a young man.” Having once worked as a fitter and turner, Darren eventually found himself unable to work due to debilitating arthritis problems. Once applying for over 100 consecutive jobs, no one was willing to give Darren a chance. At one stage, he found himself down and out, sleeping rough in Carlton Gardens, laden with the weight of the world.
It was here that Anthony McEvoy of the Salvation Army “saved his life”, taking him to Alfred Hospital and subsequently assisting him with boarding accommodation.
Major Brendan Nottle of the Salvation Army later recommended Darren for the shoe-shiner position. Up until then, Darren had “only ever done the kid’s school shoes”, but seized the opportunity, quickly learning the tricks of the trade. On Centrelink benefits at the time, with young mouths to feed, the Harrolds shoe-shine post gave Darren a fresh opportunity in life. Not only financially, but to forge a sense of purpose and self-actualisation, a shining example of resilience.
Reflecting on the experience, Darren expresses that “it’s quite rewarding. I enjoy sitting out here. I feel like I’ve achieved something… it doesn’t feel like a job. Mary, John and the Poulakis family have been fantastic to me. Alex, Ross and the whole lot of them. They let me treat it like my own business, and nothing’s a problem if I ask for help. Melina even made up some beautiful Christmas cards for me one year. The whole family have really supported me.”
With the unforeseen events of 2020, Darren’s shoe shine service moved in tandem with the global retail community, taking a massive hit.
“I was out of action for approximately 7 months, business dropped to 20% of what I was doing beforehand. I once upon a time did 30 pairs in a day. In summer I’d average between 20-30 a day, at least 10 of them regulars. Isolation was rough, but I got to spend time with my family, and my daughters are closer now than ever before.”
Now back operating on the Paris End, Darren draws a parallel to the house of Harrolds itself, citing the strength of community, unwavering quality and attentive service as integral elements of the caper.
“So many people walk past and say hello, they stop and talk. One lady handed me a pair of gold boots she’d had for decades. She wanted to wear them to her 25-year high school reunion. I found the exact shade of gold and fixed them up. She was over the moon, she gave me an extra tip. She was dancing on the street.”
Moments like this solidify the shoe-shine service as both local legend and tourist attraction. From the most revered luxury salons to the sidewalk shoe-shine, memories are made and relationships are forged within the theatre of urban retail. Amongst the hustle and bustle of Melbourne’s premier precinct, there’s a million and one stories to be told. Seek and you shall find.
Darren currently operates an on-the-spot or drop-off/pick-up service Monday to Friday, rain hail or shine. Situated at 101 Collins St. in front of the Harrolds store, Darren offers a full shoe-shine and maintenance service.