Shod with 84 years of Western tradition, Tucson's Stewart Boot Co. closes shop

Tucked away in South Tucson, in a paint-flecked storefront topped with a wooden sign, Stewart Boot Company has been a part of Tucson’s Old West landscape since 1955. The dusty walls are bric-a-brac with signs, posters, and still photos from Hollywood productions, symbols of the store and factory’s decades of upholding the tradition of fine Western bootmaking.

After 53 years of craft, business owner and bootmaker Victor Borg is shutting down the store this year and “winding down” his long career in the business.

“If it wasn’t for the fact that I’m going to be 87 and my workers are dying off because they’re all old, just like me,” Borg said. “I would still be going but I’m tired after 53 years.”

The Tucson business — which bills itself as the “last hand-made boot factory in the country” — once shod Hollywood stars and Southern Arizona cowboys alike, but will come to an end in the next few weeks.

Borg served as in the U.S. Air Force as radar technician from 1955 to 1959, and then attended the University of Arizona to become an electrical engineer, but he skipped earning his degree to build a business and worked as an engineer in a plant. 

While he was one of that company’s founders, Borg had conflicts with the manager and left the company because he didn’t want to clean up other people’s messes, he told the Tucson Sentinel. With some savings, he turned to Stewart Boots and bought the company in November 1970.

“When I bought this company, my mother cried. She says, ‘You spent all this time and money becoming an engineer and now you’re gonna be a shoemaker.’ But I thought, I can learn this, no trouble at all. I had more money than brains,” Borg said during an interview last month.

Stewart Boot began in 1940 in León, Mexico. Later, bootmaker Ronnie Stewart moved the business to Tucson in 1955. Over the next decades, Stewart Boot Co. produced shoes for hundreds of people, including notables like former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, actor Robert Wagner, the Beach Boys, along with comedian Billy Crystal and the main cast of the movie “City Slickers.”

In the back of the low-slung adobe block building, a factory floor that once hosted up to 44 workers is home to antique Singer sewing machines and leather cutters, with one machine dating back to 1913. Multiple shelves hold many pairs of wooden forms with individual customers’ measurements and notes written on them. A work table is piled with leathers of all kinds — elephant, cow, water buffalo, horse, mule.

A custom boot from is a fully personalized process. A customer would come in for an initial fitting with Borg, who would take the time to study and measure their feet. He’d take note of any leaning to correct with a heel or any bunions to consider when creating the lasts. Each last is a wooden form with which the boot is molded to each customer’s needs. During this time, Borg would also discuss leather choice, lining, threading, decorations, heel and tip. Borg could also dye the leather and use specialty items such as colorful python scales for flair.

After the boots are made, the notes and pieces of masking tape are tucked away in files, stored along with the lasts for future boots for that person.

“The guys I bought it from told me that the company was pretty much at break-even and I figured, ‘I can fix that.’ This company was losing money left and right,” Borg said. “I went through all my money. By the time I turned it around, took me over a year to get rid of all the problems before it started to make money. I thought, ‘I’m going to fix this place so it’s making a profit and I’m going to sell it. Get the hell out of here.'”

“But at one point, I developed a lot of affection for these guys and a fondness for my customers. And I thought, ‘I’m not going to dump this. I’m going to learn everything I can learn and I’m going to do what I need to do and I’m just going to run this company.’ And I did. That was 53 years ago,” he said.

For Borg, learning how to make boots was more difficult than he expected.

“I underestimated the difficulty of the work they do and I overestimated my ability to learn immediately. Hubris of youth,” Borg said. “But I learned darn fast that what these guys do is not easy to do. I saw them doing their work when I walked in the door and they made it look so easy. And they made it look so easy because they were so darn good. And when I sat down alongside of them and tried to do what they did, that was like a ‘Come to Jesus’ moment because I realized how hard this was to do.”

The employees were mostly Spanish speakers, so Borg not only had to tackle the craft, but also a language barrier.

“He learned to speak Spanish because he had to learn how to speak Spanish,” said Linda Borg, his wife of 20 years.

“They taught me Spanish and I had to learn the names of the boot parts and women’s body parts or stuff they felt that was important for me but I learned,” Victor Borg said. “Boy, I’ll tell you, panic is a good motivator.”

Compact and spry, Borg came into his shop wearing an overly large
flannel shirt and a Commemorative Air Force hat. He was also wearing a
pair of tennis shoes, which he explained he wore that day to quickly get
through security at a Pima County office in Downtown.

Talking with Sentinel reporters about his work, he raced
back to the factory floor, and then returned with paperwork
gleaned from his own files—hundreds of manila folders packed with
measurements, cutting instructions, and orders from customers back to
1970.

Borg’s knowledge of conditions people may face with ill-fitted footwear is a skill he built over the years.

“I have customers that come in here that can’t go anywhere else. They’ve got plantar fasciitis and Morton’s neuromas and hammertoes and stuff like that. And they can’t walk in a store and buy a boot and it’s hard to tell guys like that to go away,” he said last month. “But at some point, within the next few weeks, I’m gonna have to cut it off because I’ve got enough work to keep my guys going back there for six months without taking any new orders.”

“I gotta quit,” he said.

Stewart Boot’s market, although consistently busy, suffered from the presence of big box stores such as Boot Barn entering the game.

“I had 44 bootmakers here. We were making 50 pairs a day, 1,000 pairs a month,” Victor Borg said, surrounded by the firm’s brilliant yellow and red boot boxes. “We’re shipping boots to about 150 Western stores in about 30 to 35 states. And then guys like Boot Barn and all that got into the boot business. And they put all the little mom and pop stores out of business so my market shrank and shrank and shrank and shrank. I then went from having five guys to two guys in five months.”

People have been bringing in custom orders and repairs — or buying boots from the shelves — for decades. The company’s archives go back to the 1970’s, holding details after details of their customer’s measurements and boot specifications.

Particular and precise despite an almost shambling appearance—he was
once called the “hippie who makes boots” and his desk is a landscape of
papers and old boots —Borg pulled out a micrometer in a yellowed plastic case to make a measurement
for Kim Cook.

Cook, a Stewart Boot customer, said three generations of her family purchased from the company and it became a family tradition. In 2014, Cook’s father died and she brought a pair of his boots to have them remade into a pair for her. This year, her son Brandon came, joined by his wife Alisha to have a last custom fitting with Borg.

Cook had knee surgery, and her boots don’t seem quite right, she tells him. Borg makes a few measurements, looks sharply, and considers her boots. He’s going to adjust the heel for her.

Borg later told the Sentinel that he wanted to make boots for Alisha because she works as a nurse and X-ray technician. The weight of the lead apron she’s required to wear puts strain on her knees and hips, and his custom-fitted boots can help her, he said.

Cook said Alisha Cook will get two pairs. Cook added that her cousin who lives in Knoxville probably purchased the store’s last pair of lace-up boots.

Russ Shaw, another customer, said he wanted a pair of black boots to wear at the Mescal movie set near Benson, Ariz. Shaw came to Borg to improve the fit of a pair of buffalo hide boots he bought six years ago, and purchase a last pair of black boots. 

As Shaw stood, Borg dived to the ground like an acolyte, kneeling on the dusty carpet of his store, and watched as Shaw showed him his troubles — a boot with a too-tight throat that made it hard to get the boots on and off. As Shaw wrestled with the tough hided boots, Borg watched and studied the issue.

For Shaw’s last pair, Borg grabbed a sheet of paper and traced his foot. He knew Shaw’s issues — a broken foot from when he was a competitive pole vaulter, and wide feet combined with an especially narrow heel.

“God doesn’t put us together with a micrometer,” he told Shaw.

As the closure nears, Borg said they’ll try to sell off what they can of the company’s bootmaking machines. Of what to do with the decades of customer files tucked in envelopes and all the many individual wooden lasts stacked on shelves, he’ll try to contact customers to see if they want to take their measurements to another bootmaker.

The craftsman told the Sentinel this week that it’s a shame that no one has stepped in to buy the firm.

While they’re still selling pre-made boots that are already in stock, Borg said he took in the last pairs he’ll repair a couple of weeks ago. A neighboring business wants to buy the property, and he’ll be out by June 1.

Once Stewart Boot Co.’s doors are finally closed, Borg said he plans to go sailing with his wife.