Soul to Sole: A Bootmaker’s Redemption
By Gene Fowler
Every fine bootmaker worthy of the title strives to do the best work he or she possibly can. The best of the best readily confirm that there is still much to learn, that each pair of boots should be just a little bit better than the one before it, whether the difference can be perceived by the untrained eye or not.
And then there’s Brad Glenn of B G Leather Shop and Custom Boots in Lubbock, Texas.
While Glenn’s work ethic, talent and dedication to his art and craft clearly place him among the elite class described above, there’s something else going on here; something deeper and more essential than considerations of what mortal humans place upon their feet as they walk the pathways of this life. “My vision is to make the best custom-fit cowboy boot around,” the 40-year-old bootmaker explains, “but more importantly, to lead more people from where they’re at to where God wants them to be. Our boot business is really a ministry.”
The most tangible manifestation of that ministerial outreach is right inside each boot, where Glenn places a cross and a Bible verse citation. “The particular scripture I write in a customer’s boot comes to me while I’m working on the boots,” he explains. “I’ll be praying for the customer and God will give me the verse.” On the rare occasions when a customer requests a pair of boots without the cross and the scripture, Brad’s ministerial mission requires him to say, “I’m sorry, but I can’t build you a pair of boots.”
As you have no doubt suspected by now, this unique ministry-boot business comes with a compelling backstory. “I was very much into art while growing up and I still have a big book of drawings I did,” Brad says as he begins describing his journey. Unsurprisingly, as a Plainview native and lifelong resident of the Texas Panhandle, many of the drawings focused on ranching life. He also loved making stuff as a kid from wood, metal and leather. Both his father and grandfather had leatherworking tools and Brad built his first belt at age eight or nine. “It was a floral-tooled belt with white buck stitching on a black background.” Self-taught, he learned by observation, followed by trial and error and asking lots of questions. “In time, I also made wallets and pad folios….but mainly a lot of belts.”
Grown, Brad gravitated to ranch work, primarily in Claude, Texas. But around 2012, he says, “I grew tired of being broke and working for somebody else.” He reached out to bootmaker John Higdon in Amarillo to see if he’d teach him the art and craft of bookmaking. “He said if I could find the equipment, he’d take me on. So, I quit the ranch job and then two or three hours later I got a call that a boot shop was for sale for $2,800. I had $3,000 saved up, so I bought the shop, called John, and two weeks later I was at his home taking a two-week course.”
Having worked on area ranches, Glenn was well established in the Panhandle’s cowboy culture and his boot business grew steadily. “I had a good reputation and started making a buncha’ money, but somehow, I still wound up in the wrong place.” Living in the picturesque city of Canyon, Texas (home to the excellent Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum and a place where Georgia O’Keeffe taught art and developed her early style), Brad developed problems with alcohol and methamphetamines. That led to troubles with the law and the fundamental basic will to live.
“On September 1, 2015,” the bootmaker testifies, “I attempted suicide. Weeks later, I was in jail, facing the possibility of 13 years in the penitentiary.”
Fortunately, Brad was offered the chance to attend a Midland rehab program called Teen Challenge Adult Centers of Texas. The treatment facility describes itself as “a faith-based organization that assists people with life-controlling problems, such as alcohol or drug abuse.”
“When I left Amarillo to go to Teen Challenge,” he recalls, “I had a dog, a boot shop and a pickup. And while I was there God gave me a vision of my boot shop, based on Psalms 119:105. My shop today is built on that scripture.” Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.
Today, the touchstone verse is inscribed by hand between the inner and outer sole of every boot B G Leather Shop and Custom Boots produces. “So, that everywhere that boot steps, it makes that ground holy. God saved this boot shop,” Brad avows. “He blessed it and we have thrived in His name.”
But one would be foolish to assume that the designs on Brad’s boots are staid or meek. On the contrary, many of them are as wild and brightly colored as the dreams and visions of the most imaginative customer who finds his or her way to the shop in Cactus Alley, just off Lubbock’s Marsha Sharp Freeway. Owned by his parents, the circa-1968 strip center is described as “semi-historical architecture….a cool place….a hidden gem.”
About three-quarters of B G’s boot customers are working cowboys, and though some have sought Brad out from as far away as California due to the gospel calling of his bootmaking, most customers are from the Texas Panhandle, Oklahoma and New Mexico. The other 25% includes doctors, lawyers and bankers…probably even an Indian chief or two. About 90% of his orders are from repeat customers and—as is the case with all fine bootmakers—it takes about two years from the time an order is placed and measurements are conducted to deliver the finished boots.
Brad and his assistant Matt Sager (who handles inseams, pegs and soles) turn out about 150 to 200 pairs of boots a year. “My wife, though, gets about every hundredth pair I make,” adds Brad.
B G sources much of its leather from Garland Neumann in New Hampshire and from Shrut and Asch in Massachusetts. Brad acquires pigskin from Kimmel Boots of Comanche, Texas, and exotics such as giraffe, elephant and ostrich are sourced from Henry Slaughter in Florida and Larry Lewis Leather in Texas. “I went on a gator hunt last year where we killed 21 gators,” he adds. “I got all the skins, but one, for bootmaking and had them tanned at Sebring Tannery in Florida.”
Like all good bootmakers, Brad is quick to point out that you don’t learn everything in a two-week course….and that you need to keep on learning throughout your career. “Fortunately,” he adds, “when I have a problem, I can call on a group of mentors and friends for advice. It wasn’t quite like that when I first started. But now, for instance, when I had a wrinkle in a tongue that I couldn’t figure out, I consulted with bootmakers Greg Carmack, Mike Vaughn and Heath Tucker. In the early days, I kept in touch with John Higdon. And now, I also have the Deans, Dean Randolph and Dean Jackson. Much of the bootmaking community is a tight-knit group.”
Earlier this year, Brad’s work shared exhibition space with a Lubbock legend, the great African-American bootmaker Willie Lusk Jr. (1914-1976). Boots, photographs and other artifacts from both artists’ careers were shown in Lubbock Bootmakers: Innovation and Artistry at the Museum of Texas Tech. “It was a great honor,” says Brad, “not only to be at the university museum, but in an exhibition with Willie Lusk.”
Lusk learned to build and repair boots as a teenager at N. A. Brown’s Boot Shop in San Angelo, where he began working after school at age 12, polishing boots and shoes. In 1934, he moved to E. E. Brown’s Boot and Saddle Shop (owned by N. A.’s brother) in Lubbock, where famous gambler Benny Binion eventually bankrolled Willie in his own shop. The quality of Lusk’s work soon gained national renown and his customers included movie and TV stars such as Shirley Temple, Chill Wills, Audie Murphy, Betty White and Ronald Reagan. Country-western stars sporting Willie boots included Merle Haggard and Ray Price.
The exhibition’s website noted that “Lusk boots are recognizable by a variation of the Number Ten Stitch. The Number Ten Stitch appears in innumerable variations from the 1920s on through the present. The basic pattern is a line of stitchwork that cuts back and forth jaggedly, creating a distinctive flame-like design along the side of the boot top. The base of the flame may appear near the cuff of the boot, although it more often flares up from near the vamp.” The exhibition also includes material on Lusk employee Evelyn Green, who did the majority of Willie’s stitching, according to curator Dr. Jill Hoffman.
Stitching is also a central feature of Brad Glenn’s bootmaking. “We can put as many rows of stitching as you want,” he states in a report for 24 Frames on Lubbock’s PBS station KTTZ. “The more rows there are, the more my art starts to come out. I always like it when somebody comes in and says I want five to ten rows of stitching because that’s when it gets really cool and detailed and shows the ability that I have at the sewing machine.”
“Lubbock is recognized as the home of Buddy Holly, but I think it should also be known as the home of Willie Lusk,” Dr. Hoffman told me in an email. “He has not been as recognized over the years, but I understand that a memorial sign is being erected in his honor by the city historical commission. And Brad is continuing a tradition here in the Hub City, one that is helping to make Lubbock known for fine boots.”
You can bet your boots on that. In the 1950s, many folks began referring to Willie Lusk as “the best bootmaker in the world.” And that legacy resonates with Brad Glenn. Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.