Some may call it a dying industry as technology keeps swallowing one tradition after another, but the only bootmaker left in Raymondville and one of a few in the Rio Grande Valley keeps defying the odds against dozens of commercial bootmakers.
Armando’s Boots Co. has been producing the custom-made footwear for nearly 40 years and is not showing any signs of slowing down. The 77-year-old owner, Armando Duarte Rios, comes from a family of expert bootmakers who believe nothing beats the real thing.
Texas has several handmade bootmakers, including Rocketbuster, Heritage Boot Co., Stallion, J.L. Mercer and Tecova – while the Rio Grande Valley has Armando’s and two or three other regionally-owned bootmakers left today.
Duarte Rios learned the trade that has been passed down through generations. Two of his relatives, Zeferino and Abraham Rios, founded a boot company in Mexico, relocated to Mercedes and opened another shop in Raymondville in 1928. But the company started by the Rios family was sold in 1969 and has since remained under a different ownership.
Duarte Rios, however, continued to ply his trade and along with his family, including his wife Elva, ventured out on their own to begin making custom western- and hunting-style boots for hundreds, maybe thousands of people.
His customers have included former Texas Gov. Mark White, former Speaker of the House Gibb Lewis, ranchers, farmers and others wanting to give themselves the luxury of owning and wearing a pair of the pricey custom-made boots.
“We make an average of 12 pairs a week,” Duarte Rios said while taking foot measurements of a customer who stopped by the shop on North Seventh Street near downtown Raymondville. “We have customers from all over the United States, from France, Spain, Argentina and many other countries.”
Tony Williams, of Chicago, said his family has probably gotten 15 pairs from Armando’s over the years. “These are great boots,” he said, wearing a brown-colored pair of boots Duarte Rios made for him a while back. “He might not be okay but his boots are the best,” Williams added, obviously joking about Duarte.
In the front section of the shop are boots on display and dozens of hides Duarte Rios buys from a broker in West Texas. Boots made of exotic hides cost more than the traditional cowhide. Some of the skins come from such critters as boa, python, elephant, shark, alligator, caiman, stingray and ostrich.
One of his latest acquisitions is a hide from a huge Brazilian fish that ranks as one of the world’s largest freshwater species. “A client called and said he wanted a pair of boots from a fish,” Duarte Rios said, showing the black hide thicker but softer than a cow hide. “Here it is.”
In the back of the shop are dozens of machines, tools and a handful of workers who help Duarte Rios make boots or fix worn out pairs left for repair by clients.
Asked what makes a pair of custom-made boots unique, Duarte Rios simply replies, “You have to do what a client asks and take your time whenever you began working on a pair.”
Western-style boots are popular all over the country, but especially in Texas. Here in the Rio Grande Valley, people take pride wearing one-of-a-kind custom boots, showing them off at county fairs, rodeos and social events.
For more information on Armando’s Boots Co., call 956.689.3521.