Tommy Rhine, 70, has been repairing shoes in Denver for more than 40 years. He’s repaired shoes for everyone from Broncos and Nuggets players to doctors and lawyers at Rhine’s Shoe & Boot Repair.
But three months of the COVID-19 pandemic almost forced Rhine to shut his doors.
“I mostly deal with downtown businesspeople,” Rhine said. “Half of them are not working or if they are working, they are working at home. They don’t need to dress up or have the shoes right now so that kind of killed everything.”
Rhine said he went four months without being able to pay his rent due to the lack of business. He tried applying for small business loans but never heard back.
When the Black Lives Matter protests began late May in Denver, Tommy Rhine Jr., Rhine’s oldest son, put a sign in the window that says, “Black Owned Business.” The idea was to promote support for the business and to deter any potential vandalism.
Rhine Sr. has not been a part of the Black Lives Matter protests downtown, but he said he was more active in the 1960s as a young man when he was living in Fort Worth, Texas. He remembers having to ride in the back of the bus and using segregated water fountains. When he moved to Denver in 1970, he said he was often stopped by police.
“I can’t tell you how many times I was profiled … just for being Black,” he said. “They used to call it DWB — driving while Black — and that’s real.”
The “Black Owned Business” sign caught the attention of Colorado Public Radio’s Ryan Warner, and he tweeted about Rhine’s shop. A few hours later, a family friend noticed how much attention the post was getting and contacted the son to suggest making a GoFundMe to help his father.
The funds kept pouring in, and Rhine now has tens of thousands of dollars for his shop. The original goal was $8,000. The GoFundMe is still active, and Rhine has also received mail every day from people all over the country donating money.
“I’ve got people saying they want to send their shoes here from California, Illinois,” Rhine Sr. said. “I tell them to send them in. I’m right next door to FedEx.”
Since the media coverage began, he’s been constantly working. He’s been taking orders while repairing shoes.
“I never had to put people off for two weeks, I usually do a two- to three-day turnaround,” he said. “Now I have to say a week.”
Julia James, a lifelong Denverite, stumbled on Rhine’s story by chance the day after the original tweet went out. Immediately afterward, she drove down to his shop.
She bought two pairs of shoes from him and asked if it was OK if she shared his story on her Facebook page and started another fundraiser. She now periodically pops in to give Rhine a check. The last one was for $3,000. That fundraiser is also still active.
“There’s this nostalgia for what he does, and I think also he’s a black-owned business that has been in business for 40 years,” she said. “People stepped up and are continuing to step up.”
Despite having all that extra money, Rhine said he doesn’t have a desire to get a bigger shop. He said he’s happy doing the trade he’s been doing since high school.