A crowd of people lined the walls near Nelson’s Corner shoe-shine in the Mobile Regional Airport on June 6, smart phones held aloft as they recorded a beautiful moment at the start of the day. After finishing up a shine of a year-long customer and friend, Nelson Easterling received an envelope holding his tip. Reading the amount of the check, his eyes grew large and he stood speechless. His friends and co-workers in the room clapped and cheered, thrilled for Nelson as he revealed the tip was for $5,000.
Thomas Massie, who works for Bridgeline Digital in Boston, began traveling to Mobile regularly about one year ago in order to negotiate a contract with a Mobile company. Easterling was one of the first people he met.
“I came out of gate three and I see Nelson and I think, ‘OK, I’ll get my shoes shined and look good for this prospect.’ I sat down with Nelson, and he greeted me with a warm smile, and he started telling us about all the great things in Mobile,” Massie said.
The two chatted through that first shoe-shine, Easterling offering Massie expert advice on where to stay and dine while in Mobile. When Massie explained what brought him across the country in the first place, though, a friendship was struck.
“We told him we have this prospect, and that this is potentially a really big deal for us. And Nelson stopped, looked me in the eye and — I’ll never forget this — he said, ‘You know something, I have a great feeling about this. I know you’re going to win that deal and I’m going to pray for you every day that you do,’” Massie said.
After dozens of trips from Boston to Mobile and back — every time stopping at Nelson’s Corner — Massie and his company won the contract, the largest one in their company’s history.
Massie decided immediately afterward that he must do something special for Easterling, and he concocted the $5,000 tip. “Something so meaningful happened for us, how can we not share a bit of God’s favor, and share it with someone who was always wishing us well along the way,” Massie said.
“It was the day that we signed the deal that we talked about doing this, and I went out to dinner with our new customer. I mentioned to her the idea, and when I saw her reaction to it, right then I knew I’d do it,” he said.
When Easterling finished shining his shoes, Massie took an envelope from his pocket, telling Easterling to “keep the change.” After realizing just how large his tip was, Easterling took a breath and even stumbled backward a little, moving in to embrace and thank his friend.
Easterling opened Nelson’s Corner nearly 27 years ago as a second job, hoping to make ends meet. His business is about making his customers feel welcome, and he explained that he tried to act as an ambassador to the city, always greeting his customers with warmth and sage advice from a long-time resident.
“I believe in motivation, and I’m the type of person who will try to take something bad and try to find the small good in it. That’s what my mother would always say to do in everything you do,” Easterling said.
With all the different people passing by his shoe-shine station, Easterling acts in a multitude of roles. He says that while he works on his customers’ shoes, he acts as a counselor and an ambassador, a friend and a confidante.
“I try to be better for each and every customer. Every time we [Mobile] embrace every customer, that’s one more customer for me, as well,” Easterling said.
When Massie arrived to have his shoes shined again and as more people began to stop and watch, Easterling suspected something was going on, but nothing of this magnitude crossed his mind.
“I thought my friend Tommy was just thanking me with a small token for allowing me to fix his shoes up. So I had no idea that the blessing was going to rain down this heavy on me. I definitely take a lot of pride,” Easterling said.
Massie has undoubtedly received much support and encouragement throughout his business dealings in Mobile, so what about Easterling stood out to him so strongly?
“Just his positive thinking and his words of encouragement as I was going along, that was pretty meaningful, putting a little pep in my step as I walked in.
And of course, when we signed the agreements, I came back to Nelson before going back to Boston. And I looked at him and I said, ‘We won it.’ And he gave me a hug and just said, ‘I knew it, I knew you’d win it,’ and his eyes watered up a bit, and it struck me that for him, it wasn’t about shining shoes or getting a good tip but just being generally excited about our success,” Massie said.
Daphney Easterling, Nelson’s niece, also works in the Mobile airport, and she could not be happier for her uncle. “He’s genuine, he’s polite, he’s honest. He’s like everyone’s friend. We can go to him for advice,” said Daphney. “He’s an asset to the airport.”
For Nelson, this gesture of gratitude validates his ideals as a businessman, only making him love his Corner even more.
“This is one of greatest days of my life because I always believe that you treat every customer like he’s the last customer, and you’re looking for nothing in return, but it’s a part of who you are and this is just shining a light on who I am, and I appreciate Thomas,” Easterling said. “It means I must continue to do what I do, which is respect each and every customer.”
Massie shook Easterling’s hand and embraced him, smiles glued to both men’s faces.
“I’m blessed to have a new friend for life,” said Massie.