A State House Institution

"In one ear and out the other," he says softly, about the hundreds of conversations that have taken place between the occupants of the two red leather chairs just above his head. That's Jim Chambers speaking. "They call me Jimmy, but my right name is James."

"They" is nearly everyone at the top of the hill in Annapolis who seems to know him. Jimmy's the man who has been shining shoes for more than 50 years in the same spot-a little niche on the ground floor of the State House, against the wall between the wide marble staircase to the grand lobby upstairs and the ornate brass elevator.

"It all started around '49," says Jimmy. "I was sick at the time---had seizures---and the rehabilitation [facility] said, 'What do you want to do? Can you shine shoes?'" Jimmy said he could, and they bought him a shoeshine stand, the same one he uses today.

Jimmy started working at the State Office Building, when "the old man called 'Piggy' died---his right name was Simms." Soon after, Jimmy moved his shoeshine operation to its present location in the State House. Longtime page program coordinator, Cornelia Watson, frames Jimmy's longevity this way: "He's been around since the first dome was set."

James Chambers was born 87 years ago in Annapolis on August 10. These days, Jimmy takes every opportunity he can for a break between shines. He'll sit in one of the shoeshine chairs, place his feet on the footstools as a brace and slide down to a comfortable slouch. "When I first started shining shoes, it was 35 cents," he says. "Now, it's $3.50 or $4 or $5, and when the shoe polish goes up, I go up. It runs about $3 or $4 a can now." So how many shines can you get out of a can, he's asked. "Don't know---never really counted 'em," he says.

Another thing Jimmy's never really counted is the number of people who have sat in front of him for a shoeshine. He does recall, however, that out of "all the governors the whole time I've been here, only two didn't ever get a shine: Agnew and Schaefer."

With so many visitors to his operation during the legislative session, Jimmy says, "I know the face, but I can't always remember the name---that's why I have these." Jimmy pulls open a drawer full of Maryland General Assembly directories and rosters, some outdated but still valuable references that everyone around here seems to have handy.

A longtime co-worker, a member of the security force on the ground floor, knows Jimmy and his predictable patterns well. "He'll walk in and greet you in the morning, same as he does everybody. Then he may ask if a particular senator or delegate or lobbyist has dropped off some shoes." Del. Van Mitchell agrees: "He's always got a smile, always greets you warmly." Mitchell recalls when he first came to the Legislature in '95 as a freshman. "One of the first things that people introduced me to was the downstairs-where Jimmy is. Whether I get a shoeshine or not, I always stop and say hello," says Mitchell. "When he's not there, there's a void at the end of the hall."

Jimmy keeps abreast of what's going on at the top of the hill so he can be there for business. When activity slacks off, his famous saying is, "Things are slow, daddy," and he'll sit back in his chair to wait for more customers.

One of those customers over the years is Jimmy's longtime admirer, President of the Senate Thomas V. Mike Miller. Says Miller of Jimmy, "He's a great friend, a State House institution, and he can't bring himself to retire." Miller says Jimmy has so many friends that he just enjoys seeing and being with them. "He is loved by everyone."

Jimmy's ground floor cubby is tidy and compact, and the shoeshine stand is at the center. The two red leather chairs are raised up and bolted down, replacing the original metal chairs that broke. On the step below are four footstools, at Jimmy's eye level. Within arms' reach are his big brushes, "two for brown, two for black," six dabbers, "to put the polish on the shoes," and black and brown shoeshine rags. And, oh yes, the polish: one can of brown Lincoln Stain Wax Shoe Polish and several assorted cans of Kiwi Shoe Polish ("Since 1906, Shines, Nourishes, and Protects").

The wall behind the chairs is covered with well-worn photos: "This is Christopher Reeves here," says Jimmy. Then he points to Sen. Mike Miller and former Speaker of the House Casper Taylor---Jimmy is in many of the photos and several are signed and dated. A narrow, well-worn metal locker holds a few items of clothing, Jimmy's wooden shoeshine box and a manila folder of memorabilia. Sitting on the top of the locker is his felt fedora.

"Jimmy was real flashy when he was younger," say nieces Sandra Henson and Ann Hammond almost in unison. Their mother was Jimmy's sister, Louise Chambers Henson. The nieces agree that, although Jimmy never married, "He was good with the ladies---a real ladies' man. He used to love to go to Baltimore and shop. A shopaholic he was," they recall. "Plus, the folks up at the State House used to give him suits, shoes and overcoats---a little bit of everything."

And his shoeshine business? "He can bring an old shoe back to life---make it look like it's brand new. He's good with a shoe, I'll tell you," says Sandra.

One of three children, Jimmy lived in Eastport for about 25 years. His brother and sister are deceased, and his mother, Carrie Chambers, who lived on her own until she was 100, recently died at 106. Jimmy now lives within walking distance of the State House at Timothy House on West Washington Street.

Del. Herb McMillan knows that if Jimmy doesn't shine shoes, he doesn't get paid. "I became a delegate to represent people who work from dawn to dusk to make a living for their family---Jimmy is a daily reminder to me of why I'm there."

At the end of the day, or when business gets too slow, Jimmy packs up to leave. He tightens the lids on the tins of polish and packs the brushes, dabbers and shine rags into the wooden shoeshine box. As he puts the box in the locker, an old calendar catches his eye. He points proudly to the inscription: "Compliments of Parris N. Glendening, Governor." Then he tops off his day with the felt fedora and heads home, same as he always has---on foot.

When not wearing one of hats for Inside Annapolis Magazine, Carolyn Lee can be found paddling her kayak or working in her garden.


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