Cowboy boots and taxidermy
Shopping for shoes probably doesn’t take you any longer than a few seconds. You probably already know what size of Vans you need and just order a new pair from eBay and get them even cheaper than they already are (which is pretty cheap). But that’s because "work" for you means sitting down surfing the internet for nine hours at a time, and so "comfort" only has meaning in whether your shoes make your feet sweaty or not. Admittedly, that’s a pretty slick process and suits your needs perfectly. But it does mean that you’re missing out on a whole world of shops that would blow your fucking mind if you dared look them up.
Texas Custom Boots in Austin, Texas is not only an emporium filled with various styles of cowboy boots from the last hundred years that can be modified any which way you can imagine, but, as if to remind you how much of an effeminate, work-shy life you lead, the shop is also filled with dead animals, because it is also home to the Martinez Brother’s Taxidermy. I spoke to the owners of both parts of the shop.
Unless you also use an elephant’s leg as a bin, you probably aren’t even half as real as these guys.
Vice: How long have you been doing this for?
Noel, Texas Custom Boots: Since 1980. I’ve owned it since ’88. The original owner wasn’t really into it. They tried to get in while the time was good, but weren’t really here much, just to count the money. My parents still own a cobbler's, so I’ve been brought up with it. The owner saw I took an interest in it, so offered to sell me the company and I bought it.
Who wears cowboy boots? Is it just a fashion thing now?
All kinds of people. Some wear them as work boots, as dress boots... it’s part of life in Texas – like wearing a pair of loafers or a pair of tennis shoes. The solid feel, the protection around your ankles, there are no other shoes out there that can shape and mould to your feet so well over time. Over the years, there’s been a lot of changes to them. Originally the owner would customise them with their ranch name or symbols of their life.
(These have been built by scratch. They are being custom made for the owner of the establishment. See the bee on there? That’s their logo.)
Where do you get them all from?
I go find most of this stuff. I go through old junk shops in Texas, markets, yard sales... I also have people come in to me and bring in boots that were handed down or given to them but it just hasn’t worked out and I’ll trade them for some new boots they’re happy with.
Is there anything that’s frowned upon in the cowboy-boot community, like bright red lizard-skin boots?
To some, yes. They have different tastes, but when I’m looking for older boots, red is my best seller. It’s hard to come by. In vintage, that is. You can see it all day long on the shop shelf for new. For older stuff it’s easy to find browns, greys, teal... but I’d say red – I have nothing against it, I don’t have red boots myself – but a burgundy or oxblood is always a good seller in vintage lines. I tell people right when they come in the door it’s gonna be hit or miss. I may have your size, I may not. I may be able to get women in to small men’s size, most boots are fairly unisex. For me, the bolder the design, the better.
I tried on some which had big heels and I felt like I was wearing women’s shoes. Are such high heels rare on boots?
Not really, but the important thing is that everything can be modified, even the heels.
What is the most outrageous design you’ve been asked to do?
I’ve had people ask me to do suede leather to make the boots lighter so they can go line dancing. I don’t think it’s outrageous but it makes the boots a bit lighter. I’ve had someone bring a pair of cowboy boots in and want the whole sole to be made into platform shoes. Or a Doc Martens sole on them, stuff like that. We’ve done a variety of things like that. I’ve built boots for people, and they tell me, "I want them to look like they’ve been run over by a rig". A lot of people want the weathered look, even if it’s a new boot. Just look what people are paying for blue jeans that are ripped! They’re paying $4/5/600... If they’re at a high class party, they gotta have the boots to match.
Are most of your customers local, or from around the world?
From everywhere. A lot from Australia, Canada, often get a lot of people from the Orient when the festivals are in town. One time these kids came in who had a thrift store back in Japan and I sold them about 12 pairs of boots, gave them a good deal on them and they took them back to Japan to sell. People send me stuff from around the world too. Our name's out on the internet; we’re not huge, but I love it.
How come you’re in the same shop as the taxidermy business?
We’ve been in the same building for about three years. Before that I was down the road and this was all taxidermy. I’ve known the Martinez family for years and they knew I had to relocate to a bigger shop from where I’d been for about 15 years, so they let me in here.
Vice: How long have you been in the taxidermy game for?
Mr Martinez: I grew up in this room! I think since about 2000 I’ve been doing it full time.
Who tends to buy it?
Well, the way it works is that this belongs to this actual customer (points to tag on the antlers). This guy went out last November in hunting season, and harvested this guy – his first trophy. He wanted to preserve it so he brought it over to me and I’m putting him back together. But I also buy and sell taxidermy.
The people who buy them are mostly out-of-towners – people who’ve just moved to the city and want to display a deer or some kind of wildlife. Also, club owners downtown, if they’re in Texas, they want their place to be Western-themed. They’re the main people who buy stuff, rather than collectors.
How long does the whole process take?
About 11 months to get it back. The reason for that is that I got all kinds of animals to work on. I get deer, fish, foxes, head mounts, bobcats, domestic pets.
What’s your favourite to stuff?
White deers. Those or big game.
What about doing the whole body of an animal?
Full body is a chore, compared to a shoulder mount.
What wouldn’t you stuff?
People! I saw a European guy had a display in Houston about two years ago of over a hundred bodies, preserved bodies, in different positions – athletic positions, any kind of position! Ha ha!
When you are given the animals, are they hollowed out or do you get a full carcass?
Usually they’ll have taken the belly and the insides but there’s still the carcass inside – the bones. Most of the hunters like to eat the meat from the animal, so they like to keep that.
What’s the most unusual thing you’ve done?
Domesticated dogs. I’m a dog kind of guy, I like dogs, but I put a German Shepherd together – whole body mount, sitting on his haunches, his ears were up and he looked alert, like if you whistled he’d come running! Ha ha! It took several months to do that. It’s all prep time, letting it dry out – you skin the animal, let it dry out, then rehydrate it... treat it the same as you do to leather.
The birds look tricky to do.
They are. You have to have a gentle hand. They say women are better taxidermists than men when it comes to avian animals. If you’re rough you’ll break them.