From the Tenderloin to entrepreneur, San Francisco woman fights to keep her business Shoeline Guild alive amid COVID-19 pandemic

Steven Spielberg
SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) — COVID-19 pandemic restrictions may be easing, but for one small business owner in San Francisco, the fight to keep her business alive is just beginning.

Rachel Leamy is the owner of The Shoeshine Guild. She founded the business more than two decades after getting off the streets.

“The level of terror that I was drinking to not be aware of was pretty intense,” said Leamy.

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While getting sober, Leamy stumbled into what would become her life’s work.

“I had some circumstance where I needed to make some money quick and so I tried and fell in love with it,” said Leamy, who not only turned that passion into a business, but also paid it forward, employing others facing addiction. “There’s a lot that happens here. It’s a job, but there’s also a lot of personal growth.”

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Freddy Cook is one of the employees she’s supported. “Some of the customers here saved my life and helped me huge ways,” said Cook, noting the customers provide a connection and the work provides a purpose.

“Well, this was a safe space for a recovering alcoholic to come earn a little money and get your butt to the meeting.”

But that safe space is all but gone; the pandemic taking a toll on Leamy’s two Financial District storefronts.

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“All of a sudden it was boom. Doors shut. Shelter in place,” described Leamy.

Cook the only employee left on her payroll.

“This place was jam packed keeping four people busy eight hours a day, and now I’m sitting here for four hours and I’m lucky if I see ten people pass by the door,” said Cook.

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And while Leamy is hopeful foot traffic will start picking up as pandemic restrictions ease, she knows in order for her business to survive it needs to also be online.

“What I’d like to have out there is an easy-access pick-up and delivery service so I could get business from all over the Bay Area.”

But taking business virtual is proving tough. She doesn’t have the money or expertise.

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“I don’t know how to do it, you know to create that business,” said Leamy. “But if I had someone who could pay for it, I’d love to create that business.”

And it’s business she believes will continue saving lives.

“It’s more than a transaction,” said Cook. “It’s like the barber. It’s where you interact with other human beings.”

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