He arrived in New York City from his native Crete in the 1960s penniless and slowly built a business in New York City’s financial district that customers and residents described as “legendary.”
Minas Polychronakis, who was at work, cobbling away and puffing on a cigarette on the morning of September 11, 2001 heard that an airplane had hit one of the World Trade Center towers.
He quietly encouraged his employees to leave, telling them to get to safety as soon as possible. He locked the doors to his shop in the concourse of the trade center where a hundred stories above, all hell was breaking loose.
His car was unreachable due to the chaos that was ensuing so he began walking— pausing for a moment to witness the second tower being hit, before slowly making his way all the way back to Astoria and the comfort of his family.
No small feat for a man who had a permanent disability in his leg after jumping off a roof as a young child in Crete when a buddy dared him to do it.
“It was hours,” Minas told me. “I was walking for hours. I don’t remember how many. All I kept thinking about was my family.”
Minas Polychronakis was like a father to me— always opening his home when I visited New York City and offering me a prominent seat at the family dining room table where he served his signature pork chops fried in a pan and finished with balsamic vinegar.
My connection to Minas began through our mutual affiliation in the Cretan Association and his leadership in the Minos Cretan Association in Astoria.
Much younger than me, Minas’ children, particularly his son Manolis, became like little brothers. We bunked together when I stayed at their house on weekends and shared stories and exchanged ideas about how to keep young people in touch with their Cretan and Greek heritage.
Minas lived, ate, and breathed Crete and was passionate about preserving the island’s heritage amongst the youth of America.
At the Pancretan Association’s national Convention in Anaheim, California in 1990 he traveled from New York City with suitcases and boxes filled with authentic Cretan raki, paximadia, rounds of kefalograviera cheese and other delicacies— enough to feed hundreds— and passed them out to everyone during the evening celebrations.
“If we don’t taste a bit of Crete,” he said then, “then what kind of Cretan convention is it?”
Born in 1941, he started making shoes at the age of 12 and soon became well-known for his craft in Iraklion.
In 1969, he learned that the United States was looking for craftsmen such as shoemakers and got his visa and emigrated to New York.
He arrived in this country with no money. He did not know anyone, and he did not speak English. But he did bring with him a big dream: to open his very own shoe repair shop in New York.
After working as a dishwasher for a year and saving $1,000, he was able to open his first shop at 18th Street and Ninth Avenue.
This shop would change his life. He met his future wife, Maria, at the shop. Minas repeatedly told Maria that her shoes were not ready, so that she would keep coming back to see him. In 1975 they were married.
Minas and his wife Maria
On Dec. 12, 1977, Minas Shoe Repair opened in the concourse level of the World Trade Center and business was immediately booming.
He started with two shoemakers and three shoeshiners. On Day 2 he needed double help. On Day 3, he needed even more help.
Over the years he became an institution in the financial district of downtown Manhattan.
Customers included Hollywood celebrities, CEOs of the world’s largest banks and Wall Street traders. Minas treated them all equal— always treating the average New York worker with the same smile and same respect.
After the September 11th attacks that saw his life dream turn— literally— to rubble and dust, he bounced back and returned to the neighborhood, opening two shoe repair and shoe shine shops on Wall Street and Exchange Street, not far from the world’s largest construction site.
Minas became one of the most talked-about business-owners in the neighborhood for his resilience and charm. Everyone from the BBC to the Los Angeles Times and dozens of newspapers in between flocked to interview the gracious, humble Greek who loved America so much for giving him the opportunity, despite all of it being taken away from him so violently.
Newspaper clippings lined the walls of his shops:
The photo above is from multimedia journalist Ross Keith photo project for the City University of New York that featured a dozen photos from Minas’ shop. See the whole series here.
Only photographs and memories remain of Minas Shoe Repair at the World Trade Center– and this tag from a customer who dropped off his shoes for Minas to repair on the morning of September 11th. The tag is now on permanent display at the 9/11 Memorial.
The last time I visited Minas at his shop on Wall Street a few years ago, he told me that he had plans to return to the trade center again. The new Freedom Tower, he said, represented what America meant for him and he promised he’d returned once his business would be profitable again.
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