This time of year, it can take about 90 days for someone to receive a pair of custom Stewart boots.
Winter and rodeo season are crazy busy for the 10-person crew at the South Tucson factory that looks like it'd be at home on Old Tucson's main drag. The slightly dilapidated building is a throwback to another century, from the painted wooden planks featuring the company's bucking bronco logo to the massive, metal cutter and Singer sewing machines (one has a tag dating it to 1899) in the back. The machinery hasn't changed over the decades. Neither has the handcrafted process.
If it ain't broke ...
"It takes a lifetime to make a good reputation," says Victor Borg, who's owned Stewart Boot Co., since 1970. "We value our reputation. Sometimes people need a boot in a hurry, and we say, 'Sorry, we can't do that.'"
Stewart does have shelves full of stock boots, made in bunches, that sell for just under $300 and are fine for most customers. But people across the country - and world - shell out $400, even thousands, for custom creations.
"When we make custom boots, it addresses people's needs - corns, bunions, plantar fasciitis. We have a lot of people who are not wealthy but buy their boots from us because they can wear 'em for decades and it addresses their issues," explains Borg, who says his mother wept when he announced he'd quit his job as an electrical engineer and bought the boot company.
Stewart's most popular style is O124, a no-nonsense, sleek boot with a 12-inch-high shaft that Borg's wife, Linda Thomas-Borg, is wearing around the factory today, paired with a sleek black top and leopard-print skirt. Originally designed in 1946, O124 hasn't changed a stitch over the years.
Other boots, though, are as individual as their owners, like the pair adorned with a red cross. The owner works for the disaster relief agency. A black pair with a sturdy rubber outsole is being shipped to Hawaii for a man who plans to wear the boots for hiking.
On the way to the factory floor, dusty boots are stacked on shelves in the hallway, a sort of Boot CSI unit. People send their boots, even those that aren't Stewart, for repairs. Problem is, many pairs arrive without explanation or even a name. So, Borg waits patiently until someone calls to check on them and he can match a name with a boot.
The 8,000-square-foot factory hums with radios playing norteño tunes from two different stations. Occasionally, a loud "ka-chunk" from the cutter punctuates the accordion music. One man sews the signature Stewart stitching onto buttery, navy-dyed leather to form a boot's vamp. He stretches it across his knees and smooths the piece. Borg points out that the seams are glued and stitched and then trimmed so low they disappear. This keeps the seams from unraveling, he explains.
Borg says when an out-of-towner orders a pair of boots, there's a lot of back-and-forth. The customer will send tracings of his or her feet. Then, "try-on" boots are mailed.
"We tell 'em, you walk around on the rug and then you call me up and tell me what you like and don't like," Borg explains. "The end result is very accurate. It's time consuming."
A last, or foot form, is built to a customer's specifications and then used to craft the boot, sometimes out of exotic hides like ostrich, shark or Nile crocodile.
General foreman Raul Cerrillo glances at the paper tracing laying on the desk next to him as he carefully applies glue, then sticks a strip of padding across the toe area.
"It takes a huge amount of knowledge," Borg says as Cerrillo works. "I've got guys here I couldn't have a business without."
About 20 years ago, Borg was manufacturing boots for 150 stores across the country. As chains got into the boot-making biz, that number dwindled down to about a dozen.
His staff dropped from 44 to 10, but those who are with him have been for years. Cerrillo's son, who grew up visiting the factory, now works alongside his dad.
"You could take the leather and lasts and take 'em out of the building, and you wouldn't get the same boots," Borg says. "It's the people."
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Boots rule fashion universe with form and functionality
The seams have been repaired. The soles have been redone three times, even the zippers have been replaced - and need to be once again. The brown leather's faded so unevenly on the tall, chunky boots that they don't even look the same color. Still, Tana Kelch can't ditch her tough, 14-year-old Skechers.
She loves those boots.
"I wish that I had bought 12 pairs of them," says Kelch, event coordinator for Whistle Stop Depot, a new venue in the Dunbar Spring neighborhood. "They're just the most perfect, coolest boot. They've seen me through many occasions. I will not throw them away."
Kelch jokes that the only time she doesn't wear boots is to weddings and when she exercises. Otherwise, she's typically got one of two pairs of Fryes on her feet. Boots have been her preferred footwear since she got those Skechers for Christmas in 1999.
"I kind of love the toughness of boots," says Kelch, who achieved interesting tan lines this summer from wearing boots with shorts. "I don't know if it was growing up in Tucson. I didn't want to be a cowgirl, but boots are so kick-ass."
Kelch has eight pairs that she regularly pulls on, plus another few pairs of boots that are too damaged to wear out in public.
Boots rule the fashion universe these days; they're all over magazines and blogs - whether they're knee-high or ankle length - but Kelch has long appreciated their appeal.
"They just look good with everything," she says. "It's just nice to have that toughness and stability in footwear. You can totally girl it up with a cutesy dress."
One more reason to love boots: their coverage.
"I have very healthy, very white skin and so I like to cover as much leg as I can," Kelch says with a laugh. "I don't really feel the need to show my ankles."
Stewart Boot Company
30 W. 28th St., South Tucson
stewartbootcompany.com online; 622-2706