Jason Dorn’s minuscule “shine dungeon” is a safe haven from the cacophony of the outside world. In here, the only thing you’ll hear is the sound of brushes and cloth grazing leather, along with some half-whispered observations by Dorn and, on the snowiest of Denver days, the low thrum of a snow plow outside.
His fans watch from many unknown miles away, entranced by the sight and sound of a 37-year-old man shining shoes. The pairs come in all shapes and shades, but that doesn’t matter as much as Dorn’s touch. Three cameras and a set of stereo microphones frame him, capturing everything from the crisp pop of rags to the soft, swirling hiss of his fingertips rubbing wax polish into hide.
Dorn never imagined that hundreds of thousands of people would want to be there, in the dungeon, with him.
The majority of them aren’t customers, or even shoeshine experts, really. They’re chasing the next great ASMR high, and Dorn’s love affair with the art and craft of polishing shoes is the fix. He’s nearing 150,000 subscribers and has pulled in 27.5 million views so far, and with little in the way of ASMR competition, it’s obvious “Dornstar” is here to stay.
It’s a bizarre, extremely online twist for a man who thought he just wanted to pursue a very old-school line of work. Maybe it was fate, given his very random introduction to the job itself while waiting for a flight at Denver International Airport in late 2012. He had time to burn and, having failed to find a place to nap, he curled into a plush shoeshine throne down the concourse from his gate. After a few slow minutes, as if roused by destiny, his attention was pulled to the drawers beneath his seat. Dorn nudged one with a toe, and it slid open, revealing a few meager tins of polish and a nylon cloth. He looked at the sign next to the station: “CLOSED — SHOESHINES AT GATE A38.”
Dorn’s eyes turned to the polish, and then to the stream of people walking past him. He eyeballed the sign again, and flipped it around with a flick.
If he was going to wait for a flight, shouldn’t he at least be productive?
“Having worked with shoes, selling them at Nordstrom for a decade already, I knew the basics of how to polish one. It was maybe about 10, 15 minutes before some guy approached me,” Dorn says. “And I told him, ‘Hey, I’m just keeping the seat warm for the other shoeshine, but step right up.’”
It was a short, simple deception that nevertheless got Dorn’s pulse bumping. Growing bolder, he fit in three more customers before the first true challenge arrived: a man in suede shoes. Dorn knew that he needed actual brushes for that type of leather, and improvised a clever white lie: “I told him, ‘The guy at A38 must’ve taken my brushes this morning. Why don’t you go over there and have your suede shoes cleaned and tell him to bring back my brushes,’” he recalls with a chuckle. “I put everything back, flipped the sign around, walked to my gate and just paced nervously.”
The mischievous temp gig netted him $38, but each bill felt like a piece of a jewel. Dorn, ever the dreamer, flirted with visions of shining shoes for months. He just couldn’t muster the nerve to quit his Nordstrom gig. “I had drank the Kool-Aid and couldn’t imagine leaving the company,” he tells me.
The moment arrived about three years later, when his store’s shoeshine position opened. Nobody expected world-class shines from the bowels of a Nordstrom, but Dorn, fueled by a touch of imposter syndrome, dove in with the manic energy of an obsessive. The in-person training from his predecessor helped, but he also stayed up in bed, watching YouTube videos that he recites today as “classics” in the shoeshine genre: “The World’s Best Shoeshine,” featuring two dapper men in tuxedos; smart-mouthed Don Ward from the streets of Manhattan; and the quiet brilliance of Yuya Hasegawa, winner of the World Championship of Shoe Shining.
Then there’s the person he actually credits with inspiring him to open a YouTube account in the first place: Mike Wilson, a middle-aged cat with swaggering confidence and the wisdom of someone who’s been a craftsman for decades. “He’s a hero, man. I learned so much from him. I saw his videos and thought, ‘He’s having so much fun, and I got a Samsung Galaxy S5 that can take video, so why don’t I give it a shot?’” Dorn says.
You look at the comments, even from Wilson’s old uploads, and you see the kind of coalescing fanbase that can only happen online: people who needed shoeshining advice bumping into ASMR obsessives and some stragglers who ended up there through a string of random algorithmic recommendations. It hardly mattered that Dorn’s first videos were fairly crappy in quality or that his shines were, by his own admission, too fast and sloppy. The closet-like dungeon in his Denver Nordstrom became a temple in which to hone his craft, powered by lessons from digital mentors who didn’t know he existed.
Even with a primitive phone setup, Dorn followed the first rule of being an online content creator: Be consistent. It paid off. “Very, very early on, probably in the first 10 videos, I saw someone comment, ‘We all know why we’re here.’ I was like… is that a movie quote or something?” Dorn tells me. “Someone after that said, ‘It’s all about the ASMR.’ I thought, ‘Okay, I really don’t know these movie quotes.’”
Once he hit 45,000 subscribers in November 2018, it served as evidence that Dorn needed to invest in some decent gear. He bought his own computer for the first time, as well as a suite of cameras and microphones. On late nights, after knocking out the day’s shoes, Dorn taught himself how to edit video from multiple cameras. The resulting boost in the quality of his channel’s videos was dramatic, and propelled steady growth in his ASMR fanbase.
Dorn laughs in mild disbelief while observing that he’s been able to travel because of his online notoriety, collaborating in Texas and even consulting with a duo in Hong Kong. He has a lot of things other “ASMRtists” have: an intimate space, brushes, pleasant-sounding liquids, quick hands and a mellow cadence when he speaks. But he is singular in this subgenre, and the attention and views validate both his new career and his decision to upload videos. (“The approval I’ve gotten from my peers is hard to believe. Yuya and I are trading T-shirts! That guy is a god in this industry. And he’s hanging out with me,” Dorn says excitedly.)
All that confidence has birthed real results. He recently bailed on his Nordstrom job — “I’m off the Kool-Aid” — after hearing negative judgment from co-workers and bosses’ suspicions about his YouTube videos. The economics of working as an independent shoeshine in 2020 is tricky; the national papers were decrying the demise of the “shoeshine boy” as early as 1988. Dorn is currently collaborating with shifts in a local menswear shop and a barbershop, plus hours spent on the streets of Downtown Denver, calling out to prospective customers.
It’s his YouTube work that pays the bills, netting roughly $2,000 a month. But he feels immersed in the hustle, hungry for a chance to find like minds around him. His business card boasts the name “TEAM SHINE FORCE,” and he tells me of his daydreams to connect Denver’s shoeshines into a network, providing the best, consistent shines across the city. Goodfellas’ Tommy DeVito might not have been proud of his shinebox, but for Dorn, it feels like the culmination of 15 years spent wondering what work he actually could love.
“Before I made the decision to go solo, I knew it was going to be rough: I’m going to be broke; I’m going to be out there on the street, trying to get business. It’s going to be getting my hands dirty,” he says. “It’s going to be like being the Mike Wilsons and Don Wards of the world, the legends who are out there just hustling. That’s what inspired me. These guys are doing it, and loving it.”
He chokes up a little, and then laughs it off. “Sorry, just got emotional a little thinking about it.”
And so, he shines on.