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3 min

Local bootblack wins world title

Keeping a shine on the leather community

SPIT AND POLISH: International Mr Bootblack, Benjamin Palmer, says he didn't think he had a chance in hell of winning the title at last month's International Mr Leather in Chicago. Credit: Matt Mills photo

It was a big year for Canadians at the International Mr Leather (IML) weekend in Chicago last month. For the first time in the history of IML, both International Mr Leather, Montrealer Bo Ladashevska; and International Mr Bootblack, Vancouver’s own Benjamin Palmer, represent Canadian cities.

Xtra West sat down with Palmer at the PumpJack Pub, where he works, to talk about his victory.

SALERNO: What are your duties as Mr Bootblack?

PALMER: There are no officially official duties required of the titleholder but it’s expected that I travel and promote bootblacking and the International Mr Leather contest. So I was in Edmonton for Mr Leather [Jun 9-10], just as a representative of the community. I did a workshop and gave a speech there.

Right now, I have 18 trips planned including a week-and-a-half in Europe, where I hope to get a European contestant for next year because it will be the 15th anniversary of the bootblack contest. I’m also travelling as far as New York, Dallas, Washington DC, going to Berlin and Amsterdam, and Toronto, San Francisco, anywhere that’ll have me.

SALERNO: How did you get into bootblacking?

PALMER: Actually, I’ve been doing it since I was five. My dad was in the military, and when I was five, he sat me down and taught me how to do boots. Then I was in cadets and the reserves for a while. When I came out, I discovered the leather community. Bootblacking just seemed like a natural fit for me.

About a year ago, I started bootblacking at the Pumpjack and just found that I really enjoyed it. I wanted to be able to promote bootblacking in the community and I thought winning a title would be a good choice for that.

SALERNO: Do your friends and family know that you’ve won this title?

PALMER: My dad knows. He knows that I’m involved in the leather community and he generally doesn’t ask too many questions. But most of my friends who are into leather or not into leather know that it’s not just something I do, it’s a part of who I am. It’s pretty hard not to have that come out in my relationships. I even have a big bootprint tattooed on the back of my leg.

It’s pretty open and even if they don’t understand, all my friends and family have been very supportive of me and they’re proud because it’s a big achievement.

Vancouver is kind of isolated in that there are not many bootblacks around. In fact, there are only two in town.

I didn’t know that so many people were enthusiastic about it, so it was quite interesting to see the response that we had in Chicago. We were swamped the entire time. There was no downtime. Most often bootblacks are in the dark, back corners of bars, but they really are a cornerstone of the community. It’s really something to be proud of.

SALERNO: What did you have to do to win the contest?

PALMER: Basically, what happens is everyone who buys a weekend package for IML gets a ballot. They can come down to the bootblacking area and pick who they want to shine their boots. They give their ballot to the bootblack and get a shine in exchange. Whoever has the most ballots at the end of the weekend wins. It was about 20 hours of bootblacking over three days, so it’s very intense.

I was scared shitless. Sorry, I shouldn’t swear. It was a very nerve-wracking experience. It’s a very jam-packed weekend, very intense, and you don’t actually get to see much outside the hotel.

The actual ceremony itself was at The Chicago Theatre for the first time ever, and it was pretty remarkable to see “International Mr Leather” on the big marquee.

SALERNO: How did it feel when they announced you were the winner?

PALMER: People kept asking me if I was crying or laughing on stage and I was like, “Yes!” I didn’t think I had a chance in hell of winning, but people responded really well to me, I worked really hard, and it was remarkable. There really are no words to explain how it felt.

SALERNO: Do you have any advice for someone who wants to get started in bootblacking?

PALMER: Just find a bootblack in your area. Talk to somebody. Anybody in Vancouver can talk to me. It’s a very warm and open community and we’re always willing to teach, always. Just grab a kiwi cloth and a can of polish and work on it. It’s a great trade and it’s something to be proud of, being involved in the community.