Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
If you’re just a working manjack who demands a bit of good boot leather, Tijuana’s your stop.
WHEN YOU'VE GOT THE BLUES. THERE'S ONLY ONE THING LEFT TO DO. GO OUT AND BUY YOURSELF A NEW PAIR Of SHOES. — CHAMPION JOCH DUPREE
I don’t have the blues — at least not today — and I don’t necessarily, get a lift (no pun here) out of buying brogans or wing tips, sneakers, Birkenstocks, penny loafers, sandals, or Hush Puppies. I do get a kick (likewise no pun) out of buying a good pair of boots, however, when I can afford them. Mostly I can’t afford anything rococo, flamboyant (though I’m tempted on occasion), or shoes that will last 20 years, but once in a while I can afford a pretty good pair. Ten-year botas. That’s because I’m half an hour from Mexico.
My thing for boots dates back to reading Sherlock Holmes stories; Holmes always wore low street boots, as were the fashion in late-Victorian England. Errol Flynn in Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk had incredible boots, the kind you would fold over above the knee. But if you wore anything like that to school (assuming you could find them), you would likely get pounded. Cowboy boots were the key to a manly swagger — think: John Wayne, Gary Cooper, James Arness — but I was forbidden to wear them.
They would, my mother informed me, permanently warp my feet, and I would be a hopeless cripple by the age of 30. Instead, one birthday I was given a pair of Wellington boots. Snow got into the low tops, my pants wouldn’t fit over them or stay completely inside them; they were heavy and introduced a Frankenstein monster shuffle into my once-purposeful stride. This compromise between me and Mom was not satisfactory.
When the Beatles and the Stones hit The Ed Sullivan Show, I was already in a rock band, and I could now convince my advertising-executive father that boots and long hair were a vital “gimmick” for band bookings. He didn’t like it but saw the business sense in “packaging a product in step with the times.” I could suddenly wear the Cuban fence-climbers or Puerto Rican shit-kickers I always coveted, but now they were Beatle boots, part of a band uniform, a concession to fashion and commerciality. I wore them everywhere for two years until I had to bind soles and arches together with electrician’s tape.
In 1969 I moved to San Francisco with some musicians. We soon landed a job performing background music for Back-to-School fashion shows at Macy’s department stores from Monterey to Sacramento. We were paid well (about $500 a week each) and surrounded by 16-year-old girls every day. I spent my money on band equipment and boots. Ten pair, mostly from a shop on Polk Street. Spanish boots, Italian boots, snakeskin, denim, a purple pair — some styles as high as the top of my calf with platform heels (I also bought moccasins). Over the next several months, the boots were all stolen, most likely by the dozens of people who would come and go from the townhouse: friends of friends of friends, many of them strung out on various drugs. One pair, a brown paisley pattern of felt against tan canvas, were taken off my feet as I slept in a chair. Did I say it was 1969?
During the ’70s my fondness for a good pair of boots had to take a backseat to more sensible and less expensive footwear, though I never wore Earth shoes. In the early ’80s I moved to San Diego and discovered, among many curiosities and delights, the zapaterias of Tijuana.
You will notice numerous shoe stores or zapaterias in TJ. It’s become a tradition, going back many decades. In the way you might seek out Julian for apples, Chicago for pizza and blues, Boston for beans (I guess), or, say, Lynchburg, Kentucky, for whiskey, one would probably go to Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills for boots, if not Dallas or Houston, New York or Lisbon. But if you’re just a working manjack who demands a bit of good boot leather to get him through a few winters, maybe some fun party slippers for the daughter and little fringed cowboy wear for the boy, Tijuana’s your stop. You can pick up the whole family’s boots for $100 or so; good leather and fine workmanship — or you can get screwed and buy plastic crap. Just like in Cincinnati.
The largest chain store first visible to tourists on Revolucion Avenue is Tres Hermanos (Three Brothers). Several of these shops are found throughout TJ, and they’re popular with Tijuanenses on a low budget. Perhaps shoppers from Cleveland or Little Rock will want to buy a pair of Power Ranger sneakers for the kids, some shiny pumps for the little lady, and loafers with a permanent shine for dad (safety tip: keep these shoes away from open flames). But if you’re willing to do comparative shopping and abandon the theoretical tourist safety on Revolucion, just one block south on Constitucion you’ll find a profusion of competitive zapaterias.
Between Second and Third Avenues, among the smells of bus exhaust, frying carnitas and churros, fresh-sliced fruit, and less namable smells is that unmistakable odor of shoe leather. I can smell it, anyway. Four retail shoe businesses occupy one block alone. Where I shop for a new pair of boots every few years is Number 810 on Constitucion in Zona Centro — Zapateria Francis, one of the smallest shoe stores downtown. Family owned and in business for some 30 years, it is easy to miss.
No neon signs will call your attention to this small establishment tucked between two other businesses. You have to look for the sign in faded gold-leaf lettering over the door obscured by the glass display booth. Inside you’re likely to find Umberto Soto behind the cash register. Soto is the 25-year-old son of owners Gilberto Conseca, 73, and Silveria Gonzales DeSoto, 62. Heavyset and deliberate in his speech and movements, the younger Soto is unassuming and helpful. The word sweet comes to mind. Soto’s English is much like my Spanish, resulting in interesting misunderstandings; the word “ostrich,” for example, becomes “ashtray.” The shop space is cramped, with only a half dozen or so seats on which to try on shoes. In one corner are boxes stacked halfway to the ceiling. New boots from Sinaloa have just arrived. Soto had ordered them last week. A family of five is occupying much of the room; mother and father are purchasing shoes for three small children.
Soto was born in Tijuana and has worked in the store since he was a child. “About 20 years,” he says. “My mother brought me in to learn the business. We live a few blocks away. Excuse me.” Soto rings up a sale for an employee, a pretty girl in her early 20s. The children’s shoes she has sold are sneakers with what appear to be flower patterns on the canvas. For three pair, the total is less than 300 pesos, or under $30.
As he rings the sale, Soto explains that the boots I’m admiring — black cowboy boots with a matte, almost satin finish, as opposed to shine — are made in a city called Leon, in the state of Guanajuato near Guadalajara. These are the kind of boots I could not afford in San Diego or anywhere else in the U.S. The brand name is Botas Rudel, and even if I have to replace the sole and heel eventually, they will last ten years. Yes — I can feel it as I heft the weight of the boot, inhale its leathery aroma, and play my fingers over its tough yet sensuous surface — ten years. I set them aside and wait for Umberto to finish so I can ask him the price.
“Those are good boots,” says the father of the three children. He speaks perfect English. I don’t get his name, but he says he’s been an oil worker, “a roughneck for many years.” He’s been living in Long Beach and now resides in San Diego. “I always come here for shoes. It is the best place down here.” I agree and say that if there is a better place, I don’t know of it. This man is large, belying the Mexican stereotype.
He is wearing boots similar to the ones I’m thinking of buying. He also wears a cowboy hat, jeans, and a western shirt. His Latino-matinee-idol-from-the-’50s look makes him seem like a rugged Ricardo Montalban.
“Not too many Americans come here,” he says. “Sometimes Japanese and Germans, but Americans stay on Revolucion. That’s okay, but if you are buying shoes, you pay more a block away. If you write about this place, Americans might start coming here, and then they’ll raise the prices.” He sees me fondling a pair of alligator boots and points out that they aren’t really alligator. “Right, Umberto?” Umberto agrees that alligator is too expensive and that the leather is imprinted, or stamped, with the alligator pattern. He turns to his mother, an attractive woman with highlighted blond hair. In Spanish he asks her if that isn’t right, that the pattern is stamped by machine? She nods and makes a pulling gesture with her arm to indicate a punch-press machine action. Both Silveria and her husband, Gilberto, worked in the shoe trade, in the factories of Guanajuato and Sinaloa, before starting their retail business in Tijuana 30 years ago. “They were leather cutters, and they managed to buy some shoes,” Soto tells me, “and they came here to experiment in the business.”
Soto has visited factories in the south but has never worked in one himself. “I’ve taken tours,” he said.
I ask him if he saw any children working in the factory, and he says, without pause, “No. Just women and men. See, they soak the leather in oils, and they dry it and they cut it on a bench, and then they glue it to a shoe.” Soto went to high school in Tijuana and then the University of Guadalajara, where he studied engineering and computers. “I completed my degree two or three years ago,” he says. “Now, here I am.” Soto’s immediate goals are to find a car and “a nice girl.”
Zapateria Francis will, says Soto, “sell 20 or 30 pairs of shoes a day during the week and 50 or 60 over the weekend. It is mostly Mexican people during the week and people from all over the world on weekends. They come here to buy boots. Even from India and Israel.”
The “roughneck” customer suggests I buy the boots that are like his. “Work in some mink oil,” he suggests, “they’ll last longer and it makes them waterproof.” He can’t stay to chat; his wife is on a shopping mission and there’s no avoiding it. He says good-bye to Soto and Soto’s mother and follows his wife and children out the door and into the exhaust-choked, sunlit haze on Constitucion, where they’re swallowed up by foot traffic.
“All the shoes are from Guanajuato,” says Soto. “Men’s, women’s, babies’. It is a tradition there, the factories. There are different companies with different names. The salesmen come here to make the orders, and then they go back to Guanajuato to make whatever you order, and it is shipped here by truck. They come every two to four months. These boots just came in today.” He indicates the stack of boxes as tall as I am. Two more customers come in, a young man and what appears to be his girlfriend. With the four of us and the stack of boxes, there is little room in the shop to maneuver.
Soto turns his attention to the black boots I’ve set aside. “Those are real leather,” he says, as if there is any question.
“How much are they?” I ask. I am certain this pair would be at least $100 in San Diego.
Soto tells me they will cost 375 pesos, about $38. He points to the imitation alligator pair and indicates they will cost a little more. “Genuine alligator would cost about $500,” he explains. He cannot, he says, sell shoes or boots for that kind of money. “Not here,” he says, meaning at his location. “People come here for bargains. You can spend $1000 for a pair of animal skin boots or shoes on Revolucidn, but not here.” How is it that Soto is able to sell at such reasonable rates? “Volume,” he replies.
Soto has never worked at another profession. As a boy he washed the windows at the shop and helped with inventory. “You have to understand the shoe industry, you have to learn to start your own business.” The business will one day be Umberto’s, or he might start his own shop. Soto then begins to describe his father working in the factory in Sinaloa for 15 years to learn background for retail sales. Soto’s English falters, as does my Spanish. He mentions something about a Japanese partner who went into business with his father for one year but bailed because “she did not know the shoe business.”
Soto’s grandfather also owns a shoe store back in Sinaloa. “So shoe leather is in your blood, eh?” I suggest. Soto just looks at me, uncomprehending, as if trying to imagine how such a thing could be literally possible.
Changing the subject, I ask him about competition. “There are maybe five or six shoe stores on Constitucion,” says Soto. “Some of them, like Tres Hermanos, sell shoes made of plastic materials. For people who don’t have any money or just a little bit of money, they go there — for plastic shoes.” He shrugs. “We don’t have a lot of competition for real leather shoes.”
“No one sells American shoes here, I notice.”
“No. It is illegal. We can sell only Mexican-made shoes.” While Soto is busy with new customers, I check out the competition next door, at Zapateria B.B.B. I notice first that their Spanish-style boots — or “Beatle boots,” as I’ve come to think of them — are 500 to 600 pesos. The elderly gentleman working there does not want to speak with me for some reason. He says he does not speak English, and he is not talkative in Spanish either. Later, a Mexican friend offers an explanation. “Things tend to fall off of trucks more often in Mexico.”
Zapateria Variety two doors down is part of a small chain with at least five other branches in Tijuana. Their prices are slightly higher than at Zapateria Francis, although their children’s shoes are in the same price range, from 100 to 200 pesos. “Variety” has a similar boot to the ones I’m interested in at Francis, but their price is 595 pesos, a few dollars more.
At Zapateria Estrella, I see the same boots I bought in 1988 — which are still intact, though just barely — for $5 more than I paid ten years ago. After re-soling and re-heeling them, I paid a total of $55 and walked all over New York, Chicago, San Francisco, L.A., Joshua Tree, San Diego, Baja, and Zihuatanejo. I rode two motorcycles into the ground beneath those boots, tearing up the toes, heels, and soles on the gear shifts, the kickstand, and the pavement. I walked ten miles over a frozen lake in Illinois in those boots during the winter of 1991 and strode through three relationships that didn’t last. The boots did, and their condition these days mirrors my own.
I decide to return to Zapateria Francis and put my money down on the black boots. I’ve got a good feeling about them. Umberto charges me $43.60. I put them on. A little snug, but that’s the way it is at first with cowboy boots. I place my sneakers in the boot box, tuck the box under my arm, and say good-bye to Soto. He takes my card and smiles.
As I walk past the vendors near the border, one of the guys hawking T-shirts, jewelry, and chess sets points to my feet and says, “Nice boots!”
After the trolley ride and a bus transfer, I walk west on University from Park Boulevard, and my feet are beginning to blister a bit. It’s a good kind of pain, though, if you know what I mean. Besides, I look good in these boots. I just know it. Nothing like it. I remember the words to a Robbie Robertson song, “Soap Box Preacher.”
“In those proud shoes, walkin’ on up the alley / in those proud shoes, walks all over the sky / then he tips his hat, just like Don Quixote and says, don’t let the rapture pass you by...”