25 Nov El Zapatero de Nob Hill
Every once in a blue moon you’ll stumble upon something special in life, something that seems to have defied all laws of our linear concept of time, something of singularity, something unique. This was the very something my husband, Andriy, and I came upon when we entered the modest and tiny shop of Roberto Robledo, El Zapatero, a boot maker.
His shop is tucked behind the main strip hubbub of the hip Nob Hill, New Mexico; easy to overlook as it sits adjacent to convenient downtown parking that is center most to all of the best urban attractions. Furthermore, Roberto’s shop shares a wall with the mighty Astro Zombies, a famous comic bookstore, known in all the land for its impressive collection of valuable effigies and classic comics.
Although nearly inconspicuous, when noticed, Roberto’s boot shop exudes a kind of human character. It’s as if the very souls and soles that ever made their way here and for refurbishment, carried with them stories of wild chain smoking nights and broken hearts and adventures in the wilderness by horseback; stories that the walls of this shop took and forged into its own and somewhat familiar personality.
From the shop’s ceiling, hang scraps of colorful leathers whilst blunt tools lay disorderly on crude and handmade wooden shelves. The front window is displayed with various worn shoes and small hand painted figurines that he brought from his motherland of Mexico, and the smell of mechanical grease and oils saturate the air around a pile of shoe lasts that had just been used but now lay on the shop’s once finished floors. And in the mix of it all, amidst all of the color and the worn-out everything is Roberto, still but also moving in his space, with his stained, tarred and glued hands smoothing over the freshly dyed and shiny surface of a beautiful Robledo-made boot.
Roberto grew up in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Before he was even of legal age to work, he was apprenticing at big boot making factories, learning the complicated stylistic techniques of western design and high cowboy fashion. He learned in factories that borrowed the trends of famous designers like Tony Lama and John Justin of the Justin Boot Company; these are men whose boots were worn by my grandfather and those before him.
You know, the old quality stuff, best known for withstanding the test of time; the stuff that, like fine wine, gets better with age and looks better with wear.
Coming from a long, so very long line of artisan boot makers – although he’ll tell you that there isn’t much art involved in boot making – it was only expected that Roberto continue the family tradition and trade by becoming a boot maker himself. So, that’s what he did and after many years of learning from others, Roberto eventually took a risk and opened up shop in Ciudad Juarez, buying the old and dusty tools from the now defunct factories at which his story all began.
Starting off, business was slow and difficult, as it usually is for entrepreneurs of his time and now, but he persevered and made ends meet, “upping his game”, so to speak, by using finer leathers like that of exotic ostrich and bull frogs.
One day, his sister called him from the States, she had been living in Albuquerque by this time, she, a boot maker also, and according to her, business was swell in the high desert city. She suggested her brother move to the big and barren southwest, to the Duke City, and begin his trade there where money was bountiful and the need for boots, real boots, was on high demand.
So he moved to Albuquerque and into a simple shop in the then developing and expanding strip of Historic Route 66, Nob Hill; named after the rolling hills of Nob Hill, San Fran, but nothing close to it, if you ask me.
The small town mentality of the big Albuquerque city proved the perfect storm for Roberto and his business. His work flourished, he made regular customers, positioned himself as a singular man – no not single; today, he has five adult kids with his forever mate- he joined a church, followed his faith through and true, made friends and garnered a lot of public attention for his skill; he was published in the Albuquerque Journal once and his picture with colorful boots was found framed on the walls of ritzy Santa Fe restaurants.
But what makes Roberto’s work special, and not to disregard his interesting life story, is his technique. During the 1930’s, hand-stitched and hand-tooled boots were all the rage and usually took the boot maker 100 hours to complete just a single pair. Roberto combines this intricate handiwork of 1930’s boot making with the mastered and mechanical 20th century style. His work is inlaid and multi colored and often features antique brown full quill ostrich skin, sometimes with green and yellow inlaid flowers and stems, unusual embroidered stitching patterns, and colorfully meaty threads that outline the shapes of butterflies and stars.
All of this, singular, not mass produced, but made with time and creativity and art – although, again, he’ll tell you art has nothing to do with it.
Inspired by Roberto’s story, Andriy and I asked if we could film a short about him and his work. When granted permission, we filmed Roberto as he made a pair of boots from scratch to finish and over a period of two months. We visited Roberto nearly every weekend during this span of time, capturing each step of his process; from selecting the leather and threads to curing the adhesive and staining. The video here is the product of this joint effort; the impeccable work of Roberto Robledo himself and translated into the story we understood and took from this experience.
In sum, I hope this is a story we can all enjoy: the concentrated work of an immigrant entrepreneur, where he came from, how he built himself by taking risks, and how through it all, he maintained a continuous and lifetime passion for his trade, through the good times and not so good times.
When we finished this project with Roberto and after we showed him the completed short at his shop one afternoon, Roberto looked at Andriy and I with near tears in his eyes and said,
“You know, of everything, I have never seen myself like this before – from the outside looking in. Thank you.”