The same tools used by leather artisans for the last century are meticulously placed through the shop for both efficiency and access – heavy-duty, black sewing machines, foot molds in various shapes and sizes, spools of colored thread on one side – work benches, leather-working tools on the other.
Bob Garner moved to Austwell about a year ago.
The son of Pete and Norma Garner, Bob’s father ran the only boot and shoe repair shop between Alvin and Galveston. His mother kept the books but was an artist at heart.
What Bob didn’t learn from both his parents, he probably inherited. At 17, he made his first pair of boots just to see if he could do it.
“They had a right and left foot but that was about all,” he says with a chuckle.
The lessons of life are parallel to what he learned about leather.
“My father taught me the value of quality in craftsmanship, whether it’s mowing the grass or repairing a boot, you do it right the first time. But there are some things that can’t be taught.
“My father taught me a lot about shoe repair, operating a business, buying and selling but I had to learn a lot by jumping in and doing.”
Bob hones his art form every day through new ideas drawn hastily on brown paper, from something he’s seen that he can improve upon with a piece of leather – like the unique koozies and the caps that occupy his time when he’s not on a big project.
He watches the craft slowly dying and master leather-workers growing more scarce. Yet, people seek him out because they can’t buy what he makes at a store.
“The man who taught me to make boots said if I did things right, people would find me,” Bob said.
And so they have, in the tiny community on the Hynes Bay coast.
“He’s a fine citizen of our community,” said Mayor J.R. Palmer. “When our city secretary had problems raising the flags because of arthritis, Bob wanted to know why the flags weren’t being raised. When he found out, he volunteered to raise them every morning.”
Bob is the first to admit he’s a patriotic American, though that’s easy to conclude by looking at his art. Texas and U.S. flags are a common denominator on his boots and on his caps.
“I’m all Texan,” he says.
He was also instrumental in helping to get the Austwell Volunteer Fire Department off its feet. His roots are already firmly implanted. The quiet community is conducive to his trade.
Turning a piece of leather, into boots, scabbards, holsters or whatever else his customers want him to tackle, leaves a feeling of accomplishment that feeds the next challenge. Repairing the imperfections of a saddle or a pair of boots keeps him busy.
“I like what I do because I can hold what I make in my hand and there’s a feeling of accomplishment,” he says. “There are some things that just can’t be bought. So, if somebody comes up with an idea, I’ll give it a whirl.”
His latest project is a case in point. Hanging from a peg is a recently completed woman’s handbag made from tanned deer leather with the thick fur intact. The closure flap is the animal’s white tail.
The purse was an experiment. So were his leather embellished caps.
At a recent celebration in Houston, he sold more than $400 worth of caps, as fast as he could tool the leather.
The first one was for his 79th Tech Fighter Squadron reunion in Branson, Mo. Tooled and colored into the cap is a U.S. and Texas flag, a medal honoring servicemen and a tribute to his squadron. He’s been making them ever since.
“I’ve made Aggie caps and caps with the state of Florida on them,” he says. “Every one is different.”
Like everything he crafts, Bob always looks for perfection.
“After I finish something, I look at how I could have made it better,” he says. “Usually, they’re just cosmetic changes but I want everything I do to get better.”
He travels regularly to El Paso to select the finest leather made in Texas. In repairing the assembly-line store boots, he stumbled on the reason the boots don’t last.
Shortcuts make them more affordable at the cost of quality.
“Even the name-brand boots use paper between the sole and lining,” Garner said. “I use only leather. Store-bought boots are not made for anybody, they’re made for everybody.”
Bob measures his customer’s feet in six different places. He asks them to walk across the room to watch their gait and adjusts the boots for comfort and durability.
“If you ever have a pair of custom-made boots, you’ll never buy another pair of store-bought ones again for dress; maybe to work in, but not for dress,” Bob says.