Piedmont Profile: No job too small: From shoe shine to business owner, Mitchell Gibson tends to the details

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 1, 2009

By Mark Wineka
A young kid looking for work beyond mowing lawns, Mitchell Gibson stopped one day at the College Inn Barber Shop.
The visit paid off. Owner Dwight Williams offered him the jobs of “shine boy” and quasi-janitor, cleaning up the place at day’s end.
It was 1957.
Williams gave the 13-year-old Gibson $5 a week and whatever money he pocketed shining shoes.
Gibson enjoyed hearing the likes of Ralph and Glenn Ketner talk about the grocery business or learn what was happening at Catawba College through professors Millard Wilson and Peter Cooper.
He learned that listening always paid off.
“That’s why you have two ears and one mouth,” he says.
Gibson, who marked his 65th birthday Sunday, sprinkles his conversation with little pearls worth digesting.
He has been in the cleaning business now for more than 50 years, ever since that first job at the barbershop.
His life has been filled with music, family, the military, church, antiques and regular jobs almost too numerous to mention. The common thread connecting everything has been the part-time cleaning work early in the morning, after closing hours or on the weekends.
“No Job Is Too Small,” says the business card for his Gibson’s Cleaning Service and Floor Maintenance. The underline proudly declares that he’s licensed, insured and bonded.
“Floors is what I really love to do,” says Gibson, who lives on Stoner Morgan Road. “You’ve got to be knowledgeable of the floors.”
Gibson relies on two vans and a pickup. One van holds all the equipment he needs for polishing floors; the other, all the cleaning materials for his regular custodial jobs.
The pickup is handy when he has to haul away things from attics and basements or after yard sales and auctions. He offers that type of clean-up service, too.
His staff consists of himself and wife Fannie ó the administrator who handles his books, looking after taxes and invoices.
“You have to let the smart ones do the smart things,” Gibson says.
Another pearl.
Gibson figures he has about 15 regular customers. Some depend only on scheduled floor maintenance. Others rely on him for custodial work daily, or one to three times a week.
“I’ve never wanted to be too big,” Gibson says. “Big money, big problems.”
People hear about him through word of mouth.
Pat Spencer of S&R Dental Lab in Salisbury visited Dr. David King’s office in China Grove one day and couldn’t stop looking at the shine on the optometrist’s floors. He asked the manager who maintained the floors and was led to Gibson, who now polishes the dental lab’s floors once a week.
“He does an excellent job,” Spencer says. “He’s very reliable. We’ve been pleased with what he does.”
In work that most people would find mundane, the 6-foot-1, 240-pound Gibson takes satisfaction.
“The finished product,” he explains. “I like to see the finished product. I get glory out of it.”
Long ago, the barbershop jobs led to Gibson’s cleaning of the Weaver Building across the street and the Music Mart in nearby Ketner Center.
His work consisted of dumping trash, sweeping floors, washing windows and cleaning up restrooms.
Gibson angled for the Music Mart job because owner Spencer Hatley had a saxophone he desperately wanted to buy. They worked out an arrangement in which Hatley deducted $2 a week from Gibson’s pay until the saxophone was paid for.
Horn in hand, Gibson looked forward to playing in the Dunbar High School band in East Spencer, but the school didn’t field a band during his first year.
“I learned to blow on my own,” he said.
Gibson says he wanted to be like Jimmy Alexander, “the best to come out of Salisbury,” who sang, played the saxophone and dressed real nice.
“I said, ‘I want to do that,’ ” he recalls.
Sports such as football and basketball didn’t hold the interest for him the way Alexander and his music did, Gibson says.
He eventually played in the high school band and through the years taught himself R&B, jazz and rock ‘n’ roll. He listened to albums by saxophonists such as Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Paul Desmond and Stan Getz.
“I envied those guys,” Gibson says.
He played in some local bands, but notes from his saxophone became background music to other careers, other jobs. “I still mess with it a bit ó nothing like I would like to do,” he says.
Out of high school, Gibson volunteered for the Army, hoping he could “find myself” in the military. He stayed for six years, served as a military policeman and made 96 jumps as part of the 82nd Airborne. His duties took him to Europe, the Dominican Republic and Vietnam before he came home in 1967.
His military service paid for an associate degree in industrial management at Rowan Technical College.
A long string of jobs, raising a family of three boys with his first wife and cleaning part time ó always cleaning ó filled the years to come.
Gibson worked for 11 years at Republic Foil. He left for a similar position at a rolling mill operation in Summerville, S.C., and became a shift supervisor and rolling department manager. On the side, he cleaned two nightclubs in West Charleston.
But after five years he returned to Rowan County.
Gibson worked regular jobs for Old Carolina Brick, Carolina Rubber Hose, Johnson Concrete and Draftex, before it closed. Susan Cline, principal at Harris Road Middle School in Cabarrus County, made him head custodian, and he stayed at the school for six years until he could retire in January 2008.
Retirement meant he could devote full time to his cleaning business. Through the years, his clients included Beneficial Finance, the Capitol and Terrace movie theaters, the Thunderbird Drive-in, Klumac Inn, Security Bank, WSTP-WRDX, Sharp Transit, Harmony Labs and Bradington-Young Furniture.
His customer list today includes Martin-Marietta offices, Meadowbrook Meats, Bailey’s Quick Copy, Staffmasters USA, Regional Finance, Brothers Tire, Rapid Tax and more.
His pet cleaning peeves? Coffee cups in the trash can that still have coffee in them. And chewing gum, of course.
“Tell them, please,” Gibson pleads. “Dispose of it properly.”
A late friend, James Vinson, allowed Gibson to borrow his machines and taught him a lot about polishing floors. He tends to most of his regular cleaning jobs Monday, Wednesday and Friday and leaves Tuesdays and Thursdays open for floors, planning and new jobs.
Gibson loves to spend his free time scouring the county for antiques. His pride possession: a 1951 Chevrolet.
Married for 16 years, Gibson and Fannie have known each other since the third grade. They attend New Zion Baptist Church, where Gibson sings and is vice president of the choir. He considers the Rev. Paul Jones an inspiration and mentor.
“If I had to pattern my life after someone, it would be Pastor Jones,” Gibson says.
To Gibson, making a solid life goes back to listening, trusting in God and making connections.
“I have been blessed to be associated with good people who have taught me a lot,” he says. “If you’re connected with good people, it will rub off on you.”
Just one more pearl.
To contact Gibson, call 704-633-7957, or 704-433-3772.