Story and photographs by Kimi Eisele
On North Morley Avenue in Nogales, Arizona, just five blocks from the international border, David Moore, Sr. has been measuring feet, working leather, and shaping cowboy boots for over 60 years.
His business, David’s Western Wear, specializes in custom boots, and you’ll never find David, Sr. without a pair on his feet. He wears them every day, all day, and has done so since he was a boy.
Which makes him, like most of his customers, a “true boot wearer.” And while business on the border has changed in the in the last 30 years, David’s boots have stayed true to form.
Learning the Craft
David, Sr. learned to make boots from the late Paul Bond, a New Mexico bootmaker who opened a workshop in Nogales, Arizona in 1957.
David, Sr.’s children, David, Jr. and Gina Lee, spent a lot of time at Bond’s workshop growing up. “I can remember being in the back with the guys, them cutting leather and working, the smell,” says David, Jr. He still has a pair of tiny red boots his father made for him when he was a boy.
David, Sr. worked for Bond, save the few years he was in the U.S. Army, until he opened his own shop in 1980.
“I had reached my potential at Bond’s and decided to go out on my own,” he says. He and Bond stayed friends until Bond’s death in 2012 at age 96.
The Art of the Boot
A pair of custom boots from David’s runs between $350 and $475. Every pair is made by hand in a process that takes 30 days from start to finish and includes fitting, cutting, shaping, and stitching.
David, Sr. has taught the craft to all of his employees, most of whom have been there 25 years or more. In the workshop behind the retail store, one craftsman shapes a boot over a last, a model form based on a human foot.
“You have to come in person for fitting,” David, Sr. says. “Once we have a record on you that last stays made up forever.”
David, Jr. says fitting the boot is one of the most important steps in bootmaking. “In a traditional boot like these there are no laces so there has to be a fair amount of precision there. I mean it’s an art, it’s not a science. But still, you have to know how a person likes their boots to feel.”
While other boot manufacturers use plastic toe and heel counters, David’s still builds each one by hand, using liquid celluloid in the leather. “It’s a long process. Big manufacturers can’t do it anymore because it’s time consuming. But we still do,” says David, Sr.
And he’s proud of that. “Nobody else puts that arch support in,” he says. “It makes it so you can walk all day long and never get tired.”
An individual look
According to the Moore family, a boot is an extension of someone’s personality.
“It’s all personal. Each individual is an individual. That’s why he has them custom made. If he wants to be part of a group, he can go to a store and buy a pair,” David, Sr. says.
David, Sr.’s daughter Gina also wears boots everyday—they’re light gray and tan, made with smooth ostrich leather. But for certain occasions, she says, “I have some cool ones, with [University of Arizona] colors.”
With custom boots, Gina says, “You can pick the toe you want, the heel, the design, the stitching. You can do your own thing.”
For most of the family’s customers, who come from Sonora, Mexico, that means a quintessential Sonoran cowboy look.
“Traditionally, in Sonora it’s all about the pointed boot,” David, Jr. says.
But more recently the fashion has shifted to a square toe, as styles from National Finals Rodeo, professional rodeo competitions, have carried over into Mexico. “A lot of the athletes in Mexico—barrel racers, team ropers—when they started competing in the NFR, they took the style back to Mexico. Now they have a more diverse boot style there,” he says.
And the preferred leather for most boots? Ostrich.
“It’s tough and lightweight, but also soft. They hold up,” says David, Jr.
But that doesn’t mean it’s right for every occasion. David, Sr. holds up a boot of purple uppers with a mottled gray foot that looks like a snake skin. “Ringtail lizard,” he says. “The customer is getting married in them.”
David’s works primarily with exotic leathers. The ringtail dragon lizard hides come from Australia, and the ostrich skins come solely from South Africa.
“You can’t tan skins in the U.S. any more. EPA won’t allow the chemicals,” David, Sr. says.
In a small room just behind the retail space, hides hang from the walls. One set still resembles caimans in shape and texture, but each is dyed in hues of orange, turquoise, and purple. They also use water buffalo, crocodile, kangaroo, elephant, and giraffe hides.
The quality of the leather is paramount for a good boot, David, Jr. says. “We try to use the best we can find and don’t use shortcuts.”
At home in Nogales
David, Sr. was born in Nogales, Arizona. His parents, both originally from the mid-western United States, met in Mexico. His father worked for the U.S. railroad and his mom was a missionary. David, Sr.’s siblings were born in Mexico, and the family lived in Ciudad Obregon, Sonora until 1939, when they moved to Nogales, where Moore was born.
Back then Ambos Nogales—both Nogaleses—felt like a single community, David, Sr. recalls. “When I was in high school you could go across the line have lunch and get back to school on time,” he says.
But like many young people from the region, his own children left Nogales after high school to live elsewhere.
David, Jr. went to Las Vegas, where he opened up a boot shop. After three years, he lost all his customers in the wake of the 2008 real estate crash, he says, so he returned.
“Nogales has changed a lot over the years,” he says. “It’s not the quaint town that my dad grew up in, where on certain holidays they would just open the border completely and have a parade that went back and forth.”
Gina also went to Las Vegas and spent nearly a decade there but then moved back to Nogales. “People said, how can you go back to Nogales after living in Vegas? And I was just like, It’s home. It’s hard to express. You have help from everybody here. Small town advantages.”
David, Jr. agrees, saying Nogales has been a great place to raise his two sons. “People in Tucson think we walk around in flak jackets. But we don’t. It is safe here.”
A changing retail reality
While the small-town feel of Nogales has endured, political and economic changes on the border reflect larger realities that have made it harder to survive as a small, family business, the boot sellers say.
The steady stream of customers from Mexico has slowed considerably in the past two decades, and the boot business has suffered. “It’s terrible–it’s not at all like it used to be,” David, Sr. says. “There are many reasons why.”
One reason is border security. “After 9/11, the security crackdown made it much more difficult to get in[to] the U.S. And there are still lines hours long to come into the States,” says David, Jr.
In recent years, U.S. retail outlets have proliferated in Mexico. “In Nogales, Sonora, they have more America chain restaurants than we have in Arizona. They have Wal-Mart, they have CostCo, so they don’t come over to buy as much,” David, Jr. says.
Also, not everyone wants custom boots anymore. Nor custom cowboy hats.
“There’s a very unique style of hat to the Sonora region,” David, Jr. says. “It’s called ‘Marlboro.’ In Mexico, they would see the commercials for the Marlboro man and that’s what they wanted.”
David’s used to make custom hats, but the market isn’t there anymore for them, David, Jr. says. The cowboy hats sold in the shop today come from a vendor in Texas.
You can, however, get a David’s ball cap.
“We gave away, I want to say, hundreds of thousands of baseball caps during the first 25 years of business.” David, Jr. says.
One of the shop’s early traditions, the giveaway ball caps were a form of customer appreciation, but more than that, an early “viral” advertising.
“We’ve upgraded the quality,” Gina says. But they still serve to spread the word about David’s Boots.
Today, the ballcaps go for $15, unless you buy a custom cap for just under $50 with a brim covered with ostrich leather.
To go with your boots, of course.