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Original Issue

The best cowboy boots in the world are too good for a mere working cowboy

On one side is the Chicken Shack, unfortunately closed these many months, and on the other the Samarie Hotel. This is the intersection of Avenue A and 17th Street in Lubbock, Texas, the Mecca of the Drugstore Cowboy, i.e., the location of Willie Lusk's Boot Shop.

In this land of mass production Willie Lusk is something of an anomaly. He admits cheerfully to being the world's only 6'6", 265-pound Negro (he says "Negro") bootmaker, and if you insist—as a great many people do—that he is also the world's best cowboy bootmaker you are not likely to get any arguments from Willie Lusk. Good nature and fine leather make remarkably agreeable companions.

Admittedly, no working wrangler could ever afford a Lusk boot but a lot of working bankers can and so can an address book full of movie and television personalities and country-music singers.

Several Rockefellers are Lusk customers and so are Robert Taylor and Audie Murphy and both Amos and Andy. Lusk serves a few Cabinet officers, too, and the governors of several Western states.

Becoming a Lusk customer is no casual matter, and once you become one there is no turning back. A Las Vegas citizen named Benny Binion is a prize example. In the past 25 years Binion has purchased something like 150 pairs of Willie Lusk cowboy boots, including top-of-the-line fine-grain, matched, checked alligator, which retails at a cool $750 per pair.

Should you, like some others, prove to be a possibly more modest spender who prefers to shop among the bottom-of-the-line items Willie Lusk will lavish almost as much care on his $85 specials for you. Below that price, you get directions to the nearest Thorn McAn's.

All Lusk boots are handmade, and every Lusk customer has his foot immortalized on a hand-drawn chart on which are numbers representing the curious ridges, elevations and depressions of the human foot. It resembles a topographical map of strategic importance. Each chart is retained in perpetuity, and though some of the charts are crinkling with age a visitor gains the impression they are permanent even if the customer is not.

The efficacy of this policy was readily apparent recently when Lusk received an order from a man in Great Yarmouth who had bought his first pair of Willy Lusk boots in 1951, his second pair in 1953 and had not been heard from again until this fall. Willie Lusk assumes the boots are just now wearing out.

Lusk and his assistant craftsmen (four at the latest count) are always several weeks behind on their orders but, even if they were not, the man who desires a pair of Lusk boots must learn to be patient. Lusk will not make any boots without first making his chart ("If a boot don't fit it ain't worth buying" is one of his maxims). The simplest and surest way to get your boots started is to fly into Lubbock, although if you happen to be in Las Vegas during Hell-dorado or in Miles City, Mont. during the horse sale Lusk will take your order and survey your feet there. And keep your checkbook handy. "We give credit only to those 80 years or over and then only when accompanied by their parents," is another Lusk maxim.

Delivery generally takes about eight weeks even during the winter when Lusk and his associates work a 16-hour day and push production to around 18 pairs per week.

Willie Lusk learned his trade during an old-fashioned apprenticeship. His master was a man named Frank Urban, a Czechoslovak native who emigrated to San Angelo, Texas and took Lusk on as his prize pupil during the late 1920s when it became apparent his own two sons had no zest for the business. Urban had been a bootmaker in Europe and applied the old-world techniques to making boots for West Texas cowboys. Lusk worked with him for seven years, at one dollar per day, until he moved to Lubbock in 1934 and joined the celebrated Brown's Saddle Shop, which was employing 22 expert bootmakers when it closed down in 1946.

Lusk moved to Avenue A in October of that year, and by Christmas he was six months behind on his orders. Each of the men in the Lusk shop is actually in competition with the others. An order is handled, from first shaping to final stitching, by one person rather than passed around from specialist to specialist. Lusk today detects a leaning toward a stylish conservatism. "You don't find many fancy boots today," he says. "They're not a fad anymore."

The fanciest pair of boots Lusk ever made was for a Western singer 15 years ago, who ordered the dead man's poker hand (a pair of aces and a pair of eights) on one boot and a whiskey bottle on the other. Unhappily, the singer never became well known, though there are Lubbock residents and Lusk fans who insist his boots should have made the Top Ten charts even if the singer never did.

Every Lusk boot contains, or rather fails to contain, a reverse status symbol. Nowhere, not on the sole or down in some obscure nook on the inside or anywhere else, is there a marker indicating the boot was made in the Lusk shop. You have to know you are wearing a Lusk boot and hope your friends have taste enough to know it, too.