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PHOENIX - Sitting on the stool he has warmed for 13 years, Eduardo Ramirez stretches black ostrich leather over a plastic shoe mold, just the way his father taught him.
He picks up a hammer and nails the smooth sole onto the bottom of a size 9 boot. He rubs his calloused hands together for heat and stitches the sole with a nylon-threaded needle.
Ramirez works quietly in the back room of a freshly painted stucco shop in midtown Phoenix, undistracted by a Singer sewing machine that hums across the room and Billy Joel's piano on a boom box.
For generations, Latino craftsmen such as Ramirez have sewn cowboy boots for the wranglers of the Southwest, long before they became this season's hottest style and stocked on shelves at Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus. But the fashion frenzy passes by shops like Boot Maker Espinoza, where real boot makers work through changes in fashion and society.
Stitch by stitch and sole by sole, the store's three boot makers have kept alive a tradition with deep roots in Mexico, where some of the world's best boot makers are trained. The craft takes years to learn and is passed down by taskmasters, often fathers, to sons.
People pay big bucks for the craftsmanship: custom boots can start at $500 and run into the thousands at the Phoenix area's few shops that keep the tradition alive.
But what will become of the old trade, these men wonder, as people opt for cheaper department-store boots and the boot makers' sons pursue other professions?
''When we die,'' said shop owner David Espinoza, wearing black scuffed ostrich boots he made in the early 1990s, ''all of this is going to die with us.''
Long before American trendsetters such as Jessica Simpson came along with her $150 Western boot line, the styles were set by military heroes. While boots have been around for centuries, today's style of cowboy boots was shaped in the mid-1800s as functional frontier footwear with tall leather tops to protect the legs while riding through brush, and short heels to keep the feet in the stirrups and dig into dirt to control livestock.
Cattle ranching in Mexico and the U.S. Southwest helped form the classic version of today's boots, they said, with cowboys wearing durable plain boots such as the Wellington, a low-heeled British boot with square or rounded toes and pull-on straps.
Over the years, the leg height, heel and decorative stitching of the boots changed, with styles dictated by use: military, ranching and horse riding. Cobblers boosted business by repairing the boots, others specialized in custom boots.
''The boot has been shared between the U.S. and Mexico,'' said Jennifer June, a California author who is writing a book on the footwear. She also runs http://www.dimlights.com, a Web site that pays tribute to the boot. ''If you think of the boot as the Southwest, it was handed back and forth quite a bit [between Mexico and the United States.] The cultures merged.''
And boot businesses on both sides of the border boomed. Some of today's best custom boot makers are from Mexico, most notably from Leon, Guanajuato, the country's leather capital. Shoes and cowboy boots drive that central Mexico state's economy, with tens of millions of pairs being produced and exported yearly.
Shared ranching history between Mexico and the United States also made the trade popular in major Mexican border cities, including Nogales, Sonora, and Juarez, Chihuahua.
Ramirez began making boots at age 9 in the Colonia San Felipe del Real area in Juarez, across the border from El Paso, which some consider the world's bootmaking capital.
The men in Ramirez's family had little education, he said. But like many other men there, they had perfected their boot-making skills and they made money.
In a cramped shop built onto their home, they patterned and pieced together hundreds of boots for Mexican and Texan ranchers and businessmen. In the afternoons, after school and an hour of play, Ramirez joined his dad in the shop.
As his father's assistant, he took orders, handed him hammers, pliers and screwdrivers and carried water used to soften the leather. At 15, Ramirez quit school to work full time with his father. By the time he was 16, he was assembling the footwear without help.
He built the boot the old-fashioned way: by hand, including the intricate stitching on the leg of the boot, the strips of piping that run up the side of the boot and the outsole, or strip of leather that's hammered around the sole of the boot.
''It's the only thing I ever learned how to do,'' Ramirez, 48, said as he hunched over a workbench cluttered with masking tape, glue and nails. He sits down on his bench, dips a sharp pointed tool in wax, punches a hold through a piece of leather and ties a knot, securing the sole onto the bottom of alligator boots with blue-and-white stitching. Eight of his nine brothers are boot makers in Juarez and El Paso.
''We worked well together,'' he said, remembering the days they worked side by side. ''We made beautiful boots.''
When he came to Phoenix in the early 1990s, he searched day after day for a job making boots. But it was tough: mom-and-pop Western stores and custom-shoe stores were giving way to chains and larger shops. Many have their boots made abroad, at a pace and price that custom shops like Boot Maker Espinoza cannot compete with.
''It's not a real moneymaking business,'' said Espinoza, 57, who's been in the business since 1968, when he made his first harness leather sandals. ''These are labor intensive.''
The dozens of shiny boots displayed on wooden racks lining the shop walls showcase the work. Kangaroo-skin boots with coyote and cactus patterns. Tan ostrich boots embellished with flowered imprints. Black buffalo-skin boots with white shooting stars.
Espinoza, Ramirez and Victor Antonio Ruiz Toledo bend over workbenches from sunrise to sundown to make the custom boots. Espinoza handles customers and guides the process. Ramirez specializes in the sole work. Ruiz, who also mastered the art of the boot in Mexico, specializes in design and stitching.
Stylish yuppies and weathered cowboys walk into the shop throughout the day and are measured for custom boots.
It can take 20 straight hours of work to build the boots, typically four to six weeks from the time a foot is measured to the time the customer walks out of the store with them. At Boot Maker Espinoza, prices start at $499, and can go up to $4,000, depending on the type. The most popular skins are cowhide, calfskin and ostrich, Espinoza said, but people also go for such exotic skins as elephant, kangaroo and stingray.
Customers pay the price, they said, partly to fit wide ankles, narrow feet or high insteps. And why pay for the name on designer boots when you can help design your own, they said.
That keeps them coming back to Boot Maker Espinoza. And it keeps Ramirez busy, hammering soles and thinking about his older children.
''The kids don't want to learn how to make boots,'' he said, picking up a knife and slicing a piece of alligator skin. ''But it's OK because they're going to school. That makes me happy.''