Ocean Beach legend ‘Shoeshine Willie’ closes his shop

Willie Washington sits by Willie's Shoe Shine shed in a Newport Avenue parking lot in Ocean Beach. He retired this month.
(Courtesy of Frank Gormlie / OB Rag)

An Ocean Beach landmark has closed forever.

Willie’s Shoe Shine, a tiny shed in the parking lot of the Mallory’s New Furniture store on Newport Avenue, has shut its single door.

“Shoeshine Willie” Washington officially has retired. For as many as five decades, the retired Marine, now in his mid-80s, has either worked in Ocean Beach in a shoe repair store or run his own business out of a parking lot shed.

He grew into a legend and an icon and even has 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 children and their kids’ children, residents say.

“He’s been a mainstay on Newport for decades,” said Frank Gormlie, publisher of OB Rag, who remembers Willie walking to the corner to buy one of the newspapers he was selling for a quarter.

Residents twice rallied to help Willie overcome tough times by raising money.

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

In 2016, he almost lost his business again when San Diego inspectors discovered his shed didn’t comply with city code.

Former San Diego City Council member Byron Wear was among those who successfully lobbied on Willie’s behalf. A petition was circulated, money was raised and, in the end, city officials signed off. They determined the shed wasn’t used for business transactions but for storage. Willie stationed himself outside, where he met with customers and conducted business.

“He’s an all-around good guy and the community supports him,” said Wear, a longtime area resident.

About four years ago, Willie suffered a health setback that caused him to close his business for a year or so as he recovered in a convalescent home.

Michael Haas, who owns the Ocean Beach apartment complex where Willie has lived for years, remodeled his unit while Willie was convalescing. He painted walls, replaced flooring and bought new furniture so Willie would be comfortable when he returned.

Poor health, followed by the COVID-19 pandemic, led Willie Washington to retire from his shoeshine business.
(Michael Haas)

“After he came back, he would go to the shack part time,” Haas said. “He just liked to be there and socialize and talk to people.”

He was using supplemental oxygen and needed transportation to and from the shed, but he kept working, setting his own days and hours.

“Everybody in the neighborhood knew him. People loved him,” Haas said. “He sold poppies for Veterans Day. He sold hats and T-shirts that said ‘Willie’s Shoe Shine.’ Local restaurants gave him free food. ... He was always sitting out there like a wise sage, sharing life’s stories and giving people advice.”

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

That hiatus transitioned into his permanent retirement this month.

“He came [Nov. 13] to clear his belongings out of the shed,” said Teresa Mallory, who runs the furniture business on Newport Avenue with her husband. She said the shed is riddled with termites and probably will be torn down.

"Shoeshine Willie" Washington rides in the Ocean Beach Holiday Parade.
“Shoeshine Willie” Washington rides in the Ocean Beach Holiday Parade.
(Courtesy of Connie Karsh)

Willie bid goodbye to the neighborhood via a video posted to the Facebook group Social Ocean Beach by a friend, Stephanie Krause.

Despite being gone a long time, “I haven’t forgotten any of you,” Willie said. He then gave his characteristic words of advice, urging parents to teach their children to love one another and not fight.

“I kept it going because I wanted to come back and talk to you, let you know how much I loved you,” Willie said. “I thought about you.”

He recalled holding children in his arms and on his lap and telling them which way to go. “One thing I told them all: Don’t forget where you come from and don’t forget where you’re going, because one day you’re going to meet your maker. ... Take care of yourself and the children and teach them the right way to live and grow.”

The video attracted several comments about the many lives Willie has touched, his smile and positivity, his excellent advice, and his wisdom, warmth, goodness and prayers.

“I first met you as a kid in the ‘70s. You were always good to the kids in the ‘hood,” said one commenter.

“Willie is Ocean Beach’s treasure,” said another.

It wasn’t Willie’s final farewell. He promised to participate in the Ocean Beach Holiday Parade on Saturday, Dec. 4.

Meanwhile, he’ll continue living in Ocean Beach, where his landlord vowed to let him stay rent-free for the rest of Willie’s life.


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