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The nicest of nice guys

by Phil Luciano | Photos by Ron Johnson |
George Manias

And longtime shoeshine owner George Manias is the hardest working, too, with the documentary to prove it.

George Manias' shoe bufferGeorge Manias likes to chat about most anything, except maybe himself.

The 91-year-old dresses himself every workday in white shirt and black trousers, along with humbleness from head to toe. As the proprietor of George’s Shoeshine & Hatters for a remarkable 76 years, he is the hardest working man in Peoria — though you won’t hear it from his lips. Nor will he utter any cross words or nasty gossip, in part because either would be bad for business, but mostly because he is the nicest of nice guys.

And now he is a reluctant film star.

The documentary “George” — that’s how his regulars know him, simply as George —  debuted in December at the Peoria Riverfront Museum and will continued in screenings this year. Not that the unassuming shopkeeper wanted the attention.

“At first, I didn’t want to do it,” he said with his Greek lilt. “But my brother talked me into it.”

Manny Manias, a former cop who often hangs out at the shop, likes to toot his older brother’s horn.

“I told him that people want to see a film like this,” Manny said. “They want to get to know George a little more.”

Matt Richmond talks about his short film documentary short file “George.”

As filmmaker Matt Richmond explains, “George” is no mere biography. Its 30-plus minutes are more like a paean to a bygone way of work and life that — like the shoeshine man himself — seems almost Capraesque.

“It’s a fairytale about a man who exists apart from the modern world, toiling ceaselessly, quietly, right under our noses,” Richmond said. “George’s quiet consistency suggests a great power within him, despite his humble occupation and simple approach to life. It’s the power of things that last.”

George defines durability. Downtown, he has survived not only health scares and economic downturns but a lifestyle shift among his clientele. In his shop’s ‘50s and ‘60s heyday, men habitually sported gleaming shoes and a sharp hat. That look is a memory, as are the legions of central Illinoisans who once ventured downtown daily to work and shop.

George Manias has been shining shoes for 76 years at his shop in downtown Peoria.

Yet George pushes on, snapping a rag at five bucks a shine. He is like the conductor of a time machine that takes visitors back to a yesteryear that valued the simple pleasure of a midday break to chew the fat about local politics, college basketball and everyday whatnot.

‘George’s quiet consistency suggests a great power… It’s the power of things that last.’— Matt Richmond

Plus, it’s a thoroughly egalitarian experience. A visitor might be wearing anything from faded jeans to suit pants, yet a stop at George’s leaves all shoes looking the same: like a million bucks.

Filmmaker Richmond long has admired the throwback milieu at George’s. A 1992 graduate of Richwoods High School, he parlayed a journalism degree from Columbia College Chicago into a career in video and film in Los Angeles and elsewhere. Meantime, he and his family have lived in Peoria, California and Michigan, spending the last four years in Chicago. But his mother and several friends still reside in Peoria.

“So, I am back in town often,” he said.

A few years ago, Richmond got to talking with John Morris, president and CEO of Peoria Riverfront Museum.

“He asked whether there were any Peoria stories I had an interest in exploring as a filmmaker,” Richmond said. “George’s story came to mind immediately. It just so happened the museum had a desire to tell George’s story as well.”

That’s because George has agreed to donate his shoeshine benches to the museum after he retires. In fact, thanks to a pair of donors, the museum has created The George’s Shoeshine Fund to support the eventual installation and care of the benches, as well as the film.

“The film ‘George’ was commissioned and funded by the museum… to help prepare to tell his story,” Morris said.

The story included Richmond’s crew following George and Manny on their annual summer visit to family in Greece, where the brothers and kin endured Nazi oppression during World War II.

“When it comes to family, George is attentive and giving, just as his brother Manny is,” Hammond said. “Love of family is the primary motivator in their lives. And while we all love our families, their family love was made even more fierce by living through the Nazi occupation of Crete as a child.

“There’s just no way any of us who have not experienced it can understand the bond forged by the uncertainty and anxiety of living under a deadly enemy occupation.”

But the heart of the film blossoms in interviews with customers — including myself — who long have appreciated George and his shop. The recollections explain how a mere shoeshine can be resoundingly joyful, time after time after time.

“We could all take a lesson from the way George goes about living.” Hammond said. “Cherish the people in your life, be someone others can count on and seek satisfaction in a job well done — these are principles he lives every day.

“Everyone can gain wisdom from spending a little time with George”

But for how much longer? Good question. George hopes to get enough foot traffic to stay open another year, at least.

Meantime, though he gives a hearty thumbs-up to “George,” he hasn’t been bitten by the acting bug. He has no plans to relocate to Hollywood from Peoria.

“Nah, I’ll stay here,” he said with a soft chuckle. “This is my home.”

 

Phil Luciano

Phil Luciano

is a senior writer/columnist for Peoria Magazine and content contributor to public television station WTVP.
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