"Do you know Sarah Palin?" Dave Wheeler asks as I walk into his nondescript shop on Willowbend.
"No..." I respond curiously and follow his gaze to the back of my hand, where I've scribbled several personal reminders. "Oh, that's right," he says, "she writes her notes on the inside of her hand."
Wheeler has been making custom cowboy boots since 1974, and took over Wheeler Boot Company from his father Paul 10 years later. He'd been working in the shop for his dad since he was 12.
While brainstorming how best to embrace your inner cowboy, the theme for this month's special series, we couldn't think of a surer way to look the part than to invest in a pair of custom-made cowboy boots. And we couldn't think of a more appropriate expert than Dave Wheeler.
Wheeler made the pair Robert Duvall wears in Lonesome Dove and has outfitted Daryl Hall, but he shies from elaborating on his celebrity clients.
"We have one customer who's ordered 57 pairs," he says. "That's our celebrity."
But Wheeler did let me in on one pair of famous feet — hopeful gubernatorial candidate Bill White. He's coming in for measurements next week.
"It'd be nice to make some boots with the Governor's seal," Wheeler muses.
He's certainly created custom boots for some colorful characters. One pair is dedicated to the dozens of Super Bowls a client has attended. Wheeler made them 10 years ago, and says they'd go for around $18,000 today. His latest creation — a work-in-progress he wouldn't show me — trumps even those. They would've been a perfect feature for last month's series on things we love about Houston; the boots are dedicated to the city of Houston and bedecked with the owner's favorite landmarks. There are so spectacular that Wheeler is planning a press conference for their grand reveal, fitting for a $25,000 pair of shoes.
Dave and his wife Janis ("like Joplin") run the shop with the help of long-time employee Jorge Amaro. Following his Dad's example, Wheeler doesn't advertise, and credits word-of-mouth alone for his booming business — there are at least 30 pairs of boots coming through the shop at any one time. It's rare to see a car pull up that they don't recognize, and most customers are repeat. The man who's collected 57 Wheeler creations put his first order in in '78 and has one on the books now. "We make it a point to ask how you found us," Wheeler says.
And Wheeler boots come with something of a lifetime warranty. "We only repair our own," Wheeler says. "It can be nice to run into an old pair you haven't seen in a while."
One woman who got a pair made in '99 lost one of her beloved boots when Hurricane Ike took her house. She brought the survivor in and is having Wheeler remake its mate.
With more than 30 years of experience and scores of dedicated customers, we decided to ask Dave what custom boot-buying is all about.
He says there are four things to be sure of when having a custom pair made:
- Make sure to consider what you'll be using the boots for. Are they work boots, dress boots, or for everyday casual wear? This will determine what type of leather is best. (For Wheeler's money, the answer is almost always ostrich. "It's the only leather that's both durable and soft," he says. "And, it's not even the most expensive.")
- Make sure to have your feet measured sitting down as well as taking a standing foot print. And measure your feet separately. Wheeler takes five or six measurements on each foot.
- Get measured in the socks you like to wear. No need to purchase boot socks, just bring what's on the top of your drawer; it's probably what you'll end up wearing.
- Get your feet measured closer to the time your bootmaker actually starts work. (The average turnaround time for Wheeler is 14 months. He can spend months or years thinking about the design of a boot before he begins work).
Of course, the best way to ensure a good custom boot-buying experience is to buy from the best.
Just be sure to tell him I sent you.