A sunny Friday afternoon on a Music Row corner features the usual cast of Nashville characters: music business executives, double-decker buses filled with older tourists and party barges packed with gyrating bachelorettes heading downtown. They all have a common experience: the guy hollering uplifting words as they pass.
“Hello, my kings!"
"Be safe this weekend, my queens!”
It's a beaming Shawn Lesley to passersby. As two women, obviously regulars of his, approach, he reminds them, “You are supermodels! Remember, I am still your bodyguard.”
Joseph, a BMI manager, stops by with a cup of coffee in his hand to chat with Shawn. “Hello, king! The pink is the best,” Joseph says, gesturing to the array of T-shirts and caps on display. “My wife is wearing hers today.”
Joseph is referring to Shawn’s recently launched line of apparel, called Kings and Queens. It’s an offshoot of Shawn’s business as a Contributor vendor.
Shawn explains his life trajectory, from time in the penitentiary to his role as a small businessman today. After being released from prison almost 10 years ago, the Nashville native found himself homeless, camping in Owen Bradley Park, steps from his current vending location. He began working for a day labor company, which provided hit-or-miss employment, but Shawn, a natural entrepreneur, found ways to stay busy.
“They (day labor companies) send you out when they want, and I did get sent a lot,” he says. “But when there wasn’t work, I’d go to fast food and other restaurants and sweep their parking lots for $5, $10 and something to eat.”
Enter his brother, Josh, who “was like an angel.” Josh was already selling The Contributor (and still does: You can catch him downtown on Broadway at the I-40 exit ramp) and suggested Shawn check out the business model. He's now been a Contributor vendor for more than seven years.
Shawn says he believes everyone has good in them, and everyone should feel like royalty; hence, his business name. “I want everybody to understand just because you’ve been locked up, because you are homeless or in poverty, you are still a king or a queen. If you are feeling beaten down or blue, pick yourself up and treat yourself like a king or a queen, even if just in spirit,” he says. “You can have anything you want if you think positive and have faith.”
He credits his faith in God, “sending him an angel” to help him start Kings and Queens. A local businessman who prefers anonymity noted Shawn’s work ethic (he sells The Contributor seven days a week) and pitched in to help.
“He introduced me to wonderful, beautiful people who designed my logo and helped me screen print my shirts,” Shawn says.
T-shirts, baseball caps and flat-rim trucker caps are available in three colors with prices either $15 or $20.
A purchase of apparel or a Contributor gets you more than just merchandise: You’ll walk off with a healthy dose of optimism about your fellow man. Joseph, the BMI guy, finishes his coffee and confirms Shawn’s attitude is infectious. “Everyone knows him and everyone loves him."