Struggles of a Generational Bootman in Oak Cliff
Generations of bookmaking tools.
All Photos by Robert Bostick
The sound of pounding mallets pour out of Felipe Ramirez Jr.’s small red-brick house in North Oak Cliff. He’s hammering a new heel onto a pair of boots, just how his father showed him.
“There are people [in DFW] who do belts and wallets and seats, which is all good, but I got a niche,” Ramirez Jr. says. “I make the boots, that’s my niche. It’s a dying art.”
Ramirez Jr., a third generation bootmaker and leatherworker, worked at a shop his father started nearly four decades ago until Martin Luther King Jr. weekend. That's when he realized he could no longer make rent, and shut down the store.
Since then, he’s been working from home, doing whatever shoe repair work he can manage while looking for new customers for his custom leather goods.
“It just wasn’t happening for me over there,” Ramirez says. “I’m looking for somewhere to relocate now, I don’t know where.”
It’s a sad state for a generational business, but it’s become hard for craftsmen like him to exist in the modern age of mass produced, cheap goods that you throw away instead of repairing.
Ramirez took over the family business after his father died in 2011. He cuts each design by hand and makes each stitch with the same tools and machines his grandfather and father used. Cowboy and biker boots, snakeskin belts, purses, bracelets, contoured alligator gun holsters, Ramirez makes it all by hand.
He really enjoys one-off challenges. His favorite: a yellow and white reversible leather jumpsuit for local self-styled superhero Garry Ingram, aka. Saint Johns. The ensemble came with a short cape, boots and gloves.
“I never made a leather jumpsuit in my life, but when I saw the numbers I was like, 'For this kind of money I’ll draw the patterns,’” Ramirez says.
When it closed, the Ramirez Boot Shop was located in the back of Sis Wholesale Jewelry, one block west of the Texas Theatre. Ramirez Jr. says increased rent drove his father’s shop from the space next door, where Botanica Mi Elegua is now located. Ramirez says his father kept the shop going through word of mouth sales and a close connection to the local community.
“I could strangle my dad for not buying a building, that’s why I’m struggling now,” Ramirez says. “For him it was good getting by.”
The ghost of his father clings to the house and his work. His dining room table is covered in sheets of leather, his father’s old leather working tools and scraps of paper. His living room is littered with boots that once lined the window of his shop on West Jefferson Boulevard.
Ramirez Sr., affectionately referred to as “The Warden” by his son, was a hard and lean looking man with a thick horseshoe mustache and skin like the material he fashioned into cowboy boots and belts. His son, on the other hand, is clean shaven with thick shoulder length hair, and prefers to work in shorts and sandals to his father’s cowboy boots and dungarees. Ramirez Jr. says this made it difficult for him to earn the respect of his father’s clientele. “People looked at him as a dad or a grandfather to ask for advice,” he says. “Then they see me and well, come on, it’s different totally. ”
Crystal Quintero can attest to Ramirez's handiwork. She says she trusts his shoe repair skills more than more traditional operations. But despite her endorsement, her experience with the Ramirez Boot Shop illustrates a major reason for the cobbler’s demise.
“I thought they closed way before January,” Quintero says. “I never got a chance to pick up a purse because I assumed they closed.”
While Ramirez has a gift with boots and shoes, the Internet and basic marketing are an utter mystery to him. To him, his lack of marketing prowess, the poor location of the shop and the old school mentality of some of his father’s clientele are the reason his shop is gone.
“I went to go apply for jobs all this weekend. No one wants to hire a reject like me," Ramirez says. “They want someone who’s going to stay there permanently … but I have something cool to offer.”
Ramirez says he could find work if he went out to the ranches and farms near Ennis. However, he has no plans to leave Dallas, choosing to stay near his children and avoiding a rural lifestyle.
Instead, Ramirez will continue looking for work in the city and try to rebuild the family shop. He says he hopes to pass the family business onto his three sons, though he acknowledges that he may end up being the last of the Ramirez leathermen.
“Some people tell me, ‘No, Felipe, you’re not a bootmaker, you’re an artisan,’” he says. “I don’t consider myself that, that’s what some people label me. My work speaks for itself, that’s it.”
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