This Denver shoe shiner’s videos might put you to sleep — but that’s the point
It’s a scene straight out of the 2002 film “Catch Me if You Can.” While waiting for a delayed flight at Denver International Airport in 2011, Jason Dornstar spied an unattended shoe-shining stand and saw an opportunity to try his hand.
Dornstar, who was working as a shoe salesman for Nordstrom at the time, had never actually shined shoes before. But 15 years in the shoe biz, a couple of polishes and rags he found in an unlocked drawer by the stand, and just the right amount of confidence were all it took to hoodwink his way through four professional shines that day. He pocketed the extra cash he’d earned and grinned during his entire flight to Vegas.
Now, 11 years later, Dornstar operates his own shoe shine business. He’s already made a decent name for himself — partially thanks to uploading videos of his shines to YouTube, where he’s racked up 160K subscribers on his channel.
Sure, plenty of those subscribers are folks genuinely interested in the craft, eager to watch and learn from Dornstar’s methods and clear passion for his job. But another group of watchers entered his comment section a few years back: people watching the videos for the pleasant sounds of the shines and Dornstar’s soothing voice as he explained each step or quietly chatted with the customer.
There’s a name for it: ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response), a subgenre of videos introduced to YouTube as far back as 2009. Some folks who seek out the videos are listening because the sounds they hear or motions they watch on the screen create a pleasant, tingling feeling on the back of their head and neck. Many use the videos to relax or even fall asleep. A 2022 study found that people who sense ASMR experienced decreased depressive feelings and slowed heart rate when watching ASMR videos.
Dornstar hadn’t realized at first that his videos were being watched for ASMR by some of his viewers. “I just thought people were watching it to learn how to shine shoes,” he said. “I had no idea there was this, like, Bob Ross aspect of it where people were watching it to relax.”
Ever a good salesman eager to serve his audience, Dornstar has been labeling some of his videos as ASMR ever since.
Today, Dornstar makes many of his videos in the back room of Homer Reed Ltd., a family-owned menswear store across from the historic Brown Palace Hotel. Tucked away behind the dressing rooms, his space isn’t glamorous by any means — he’s set up at a workshop bench in a grimy corner decorated with trinkets and stickers, a shelf lined with rows of cans filled with polish, wax and creams.
A shiny silver YouTube creator award stands out against the clutter, commemorating the day he passed 100,000 subscribers. He calls his corner the “Shine Dungeon.”
The rugged setting actually boosts his videos, Dornstar said, giving a raw and real feeling to his filming rather than something too sterile or staged. He’s upgraded his filming setup, going from an iPhone camera propped up against a cup of pens to three cameras to capture every angle of his process. Two Yeti mics collect crisp audio. His space is blanketed with purple noise-canceling foam mats.
“It’s so cool, just (going) from the most basic, raw video … to now setting up three different cameras, setting up two different mics for external audio, and going through the post-production process and piecing it all together,” he said. “That creation process, to me, is just as much fun to me as shining a shoe.”
From there, the shining can begin.
“Hey Bill, I’m gonna film real quick,” Dornstar will call out to the store’s owner before shutting the door and hitting “record.” The back room quiets, now filled only with the rhythmic beating of his brushes, his soft murmuring, and the occasional, muffled beep of a distant car horn outside.
Dornstar has filmed in many locations. Right now, he splits his time between his Shine Dungeon at Homer Reed Ltd. and Scissors and Scotch, a barber shop in Greenwood Village. Sometimes people send him their shoes, sometimes they come in person and, for $15 to $20, he sets them up in a chair and goes to work. His most popular upload is a 20-minute video of him cleaning up a pair of Gucci sneakers for a young girl, which has received 2.4 million views.
But business has been slow. Traditional shoe shiners are rare, fashion has changed, and having fully separated from Nordstrom and launched his own business right as the pandemic set in — when many folks weren’t strapping on their dress shoes and going to the office or traveling — Dornstar had to get another job in 2021 to supplement his income.
Now shining full-time again, he only works on a few pairs of shoes at a time. The videos on his YouTube channel average around 20,000 views each, bringing him an additional $800 a month — far from the thousands he made in his channel’s heyday.
Still, he regularly uploads videos, and it’s clear from his comments just how widespread support and appreciation for his craft is. “Just want to say thank you for all the hard work that you do and show us!” one viewer wrote on a video he uploaded on July 9. “Although I’ve never met you, it feels like I’ve known you for years.”
“There are drugs out there that help people unwind, there’s alcohol and all that,” Dornstar said, “but to have something you created … to have some content that people can just relax to or unwind to, or just appreciate, is just like the biggest compliment to me.”
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