Roberto Robledo’s shoe shop is tucked behind the main strip hubbub of the hip Nob Hill, New Mexico. It’s easy to overlook because it sits adjacent to convenient downtown parking that is smack center to all of the fun attractions. His shop shares a wall with the mighty Astro Zombies, a famous comic bookstore, known for its impressive collection of valuable effigies and classic comics. And although inconspicuous to most, Roberto’s shoe shop exudes a kind of human character; it’s as if the very souls and soles that made their way here for refurbishment, left behind their stories of wild chain-smoking nights, broken hearts, and adventures in the wilderness by horseback.
Scraps of colorful leathers hang from the shop’s ceiling and 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 Roberto brought from his motherland – Mexico, and the smell of mechanical grease and oils saturate the air around a pile of weathered shoe lasts.
In the mix of it all, amidst the color and the worn-out everything, is Roberto, grounded but 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.
The Bootmaker Himself
Roberto grew up in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Before he was of legal age to work, he apprenticed at big boot making factories where he learned 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. They were old quality stuff and were known for standing the test of time. These were boots, like fine wine, got better with age and looked better with wear.
Coming from a long, very long line of artisan bootmakers, it was only expected that Roberto continues the family tradition. So, that’s what he did. 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 began.
Starting off, the business was slow and difficult, as it usually is for any entrepreneur, but he persevered and made ends meet, “upping his game”, so to speak, by using finer leathers like that of exotic ostrich and bullfrogs.
The Move to Albuquerque
One day, his sister called him from the US, she had been living in Albuquerque at this time, she, a bootmaker also, and according to her, the business was well 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 in high demand.
So he moved to Albuquerque and into a simple shop in the developing and expanding strip of Historic Route 66, Nob Hill; named after the rolling hills of Nob Hill, San Francisco, but looks and feels nothing like 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 – a man of a single and master trade, he joined a church, followed his faith through and true, made friends, and earned public attention for his unique skills; he was published in the Albuquerque Journal once and he found his picture with colorful boots on the walls of ritzy Santa Fe restaurants.
The Boot Making Technique
What makes Roberto’s work special, is his technique. During the 1930s, hand-stitched and hand-tooled boots were all the rage and usually took the bootmaker 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.
His Story In Film
Inspired by Roberto’s story, my husband and I asked if we could film a documentary about him and his work. He granted permission and we filmed him as he made a pair of boots from scratch to finish, 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. This video is the product of our joint efforts, the impeccable work of Roberto Robledo and translated into a visual story by myself and Andriy.
In sum, I hope this is a story we all can enjoy: the concentrated work of an immigrant entrepreneur, where he came from, how he built himself, the risks he took, and how through it all he maintained a continuous and lifetime passion for his trade.
When we finished this project with Roberto and after we showed him the completed short at his shop, Roberto looked at Andriy and me 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.”
Support local businesses by supporting Roberto Robledo. Pay him a visit at Robledo’s Boot and Shoe Repair 104 Richmond Dr. SE, Albuquerque, NM 87106, Mon-Fri: 9 AM – 6 PM, Sat: 10 AM – 3 PM
What are your thoughts about Roberto’s story? Share with me in the comments below!The boot maker of Albuquerque
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