There aren't many, if any, in southwest Kansas who know more about feet and their apparel than Bob and Jolene Baker, and Bob is looking to pass on the podiatric knowledge to a pupil who can carry on his craft and his business, in a region that would be worse for wear without it.
Baker Boot Co. just celebrated 40 years of business in Garden City on Oct. 20, and Bob says the store is the last of its kind in the region. After getting its start in 1977, just two years after Bob and Jolene married at the ages of 24 and 22, respectively, Baker Boot has grown over the years, molting through four other store locations to its current place in the 200 block of Kansas Avenue. And, Bob says, the store is ready to grow again, if the right person comes along to make the investment worth it.
“We need to expand,” Bob said. “I thought we would never outgrow this store, but we have. We’ve got room to build on, but being 64, almost 65 years old, I’m just not sure I want to go in debt again.”
But, he added, if a helper came along who expressed the passion needed to carry on the business, he’d take on the transition to a larger store footprint “in a heartbeat.”
“I’d have it done by spring,” Bob said. “If my son came back and said he wanted to work with us and do that, I’d call the contractor the next day.”
Bob said his son, Garden City Community College assistant rodeo coach Brock Baker, is living the life of a cowboy with no sign of stopping in sight. Meanwhile, Bob’s carefully honed art hangs in the balance.
The Bakers say they started their business from scratch, after Bob learned the trade at Oklahoma State University Institute of Technology in Okmulgee, Okla.
But things in the business have changed since then, and the education that afforded them their start is no longer available.
“Sadly, our program that we went through — they called it shoe, boot and saddle in those days — it’s no longer there anymore,” Bob said. “Unfortunately, this trade is disappearing pretty fast.”
Still, Bob said, the work is there. The business now comprises a great deal of shoe and boot repair, as well as a hefty number of orthopedic clients. More than anything, Bob considers himself a foot doctor. He went back to school at Ball State University in Indiana to become an orthopedic technician, and then returned to OSU to become a licensed pedorthist, or, as he describes it, a “pharmacist for your feet.”
“Over the years, we’ve evolved,” he said, explaining that the store has stopped crafting custom-made boots — a practice they enjoyed years ago — and moved more into repair and orthopedic work. In the back of the store, the Bakers have a series of machines they use to make orthopedic shoe modifications to give customers’ feet more support, regardless of what medical condition they may be suffering.
In place of traditional shoemaking, the boot industry has become encumbered by mass manufacturing in China, Bob said, adding that the products shipped into the U.S. are virtually unable to be repaired because of how they’re made.
He described the Chinese variant of the old-fashioned American cowboy boots as “pure D junk.” He said the shoes from China are all “one piece,” as opposed to a constellation of parts you can nail and stick, and, “It’s just not repairable.”
Because of boots and shoes like that, he said, even the repair work, which makes up a big chunk of their business, is dwindling.
“We’re gradually evolving to where there just isn’t any more shoes to repair,” he said.
He said the boots in his store are all repairable and American-made, and that he will repair any shoes he can, but sometimes it just isn’t possible.
But with the knowledge to mend the boots that can be fixed dwindling, southwest Kansas is facing the evaporation of a craft that has been a hallmark of cowboy culture in the region.
“We paid the school a lot of money to go through it, and now we have to pay somebody a lot of money to try to learn it, and that’s difficult, to try to find somebody that’s interested in it,” Bob said. “You can take Tom, Dick or Harry off the street and try to make them into a shoe repairman, but if they don’t really care about their job or care about their work, it’s hard to teach somebody if they don’t love it. It’s just hard to find that person.”
One of the Bakers’ employees, Alisha Fisher, shows just how much passion it takes. Every day, she drives about 60 miles from Moscow to Garden City, because, she says, she enjoys the hands-on leatherworking opportunities offered at the store. That, and the fact that jokesters like Bob give the environment a tinge of levity. For example, he noted impishly that working with his wife for all these years raises the tally of their 42-year marriage to 84 years.
“Never a dull day here,” Fisher said with a laugh.
Even Bob said he never had plans to become a salesman of shoes.
“I’m a pedorthist,” he said. “The last thing I ever wanted to be on the whole planet, the last job I ever wanted to do was be a shoe salesman. That’s not what I wanted to do ever, but I’ve gotten shoved into it. Now I’m fine with it. But that wasn’t what I picked for an occupation.”
Jolene, a certified therapeutic shoe fitter, explained that much of the work they do pertains to the provision of Medicare-funded shoes tailored for diabetic patients.
“They will provide shoes that fit them correctly, and that way they don’t get sores on their feet,” she said. She explained that many diabetic patients suffer sores on their feet caused by poor circulation. The sores don’t heal well, she said, which often can result in complications that lead to amputation.
“So then with the shoes fitting correctly, it cuts down on that medical bill later on,” she said.
The history of the store has taken many twists and turns. Bob said that when the store was founded in a space 11 feet wide and 90 feet long on Fulton Street, it raised the tally of businesses like it in Garden City to five. But over the years, the lack of work and the business owners that aged out left Baker Boot as the last store of its kind standing — in Garden City, Dodge City and every city in the region but Meade, according to Bob.
“I don’t know if that makes me the winner or the dumbest, but it is what it is,” he said.
Bob says the store serves patients suffering a range of conditions for a bevy of doctors in the region that keep the Bakers “as busy as we can stand.”
“If we stop doing this, they don’t have a place to go,” he said. “They have to go to Amarillo or Denver. Wichita doesn’t have hardly anything left. We work for almost 100 doctors in southwest Kansas, and they keep us going…”
Having tooled leather into billfolds since seventh grade, Mr. Baker says people ask him if he’s ever given thought to retiring, and he says he thinks about it every day, “but I’m not ready yet,” he said.
“It’s going to be a sad day if I can’t find somebody to come in and learn,” he said.
Contact Mark Minton at email@example.com.