Bowmans start home business making boots, custom leather goods
What started out as a way to find out why a pair of boots didn’t fit properly has turned into a lucrative business for a western Nebraska couple. AJ and Kylie Bowman are young entrepreneurs who have started their own business, Bowman Boots and Custom Leather north of Kimball, Neb.
Despite their young age, the couple had some very experienced role models that have helped pave the way for their boot-making business. AJ’s father, Doug Bowman, went to a boot-making school in 1989 because he could never figure out why his boots kept falling apart. “He would tear them apart, and notice different things, but he could never find a good boot. So, he decided to learn how to make his own,” Kylie said. “Then he taught AJ’s grandpa, Donzel Bowman, who went on to become a well-known boot-maker in this area.”
Up until 1995, the boot-making business was a hobby for the Bowman family. But when Donzel retired from ranching and moved to Bridgeport, he opened a leather shop. He would make and repair boots, and fix nearly anything made of leather from saddles to trampolines.
It was during that time that AJ first learned how to do leather work. “I would come a couple weeks during the summer and work alongside grandpa. One of my earliest memories was picking stitches out of a pair of boots that needed repair. During those couple weeks, I would always make something with him before I went back home. Once it was a holster, another time it was a pair of boots,” he said.
When AJ’s family moved to the area, AJ, his father, Doug, and Donzel all worked in the leather shop full time. “When all of us were there, I think we made 50 pair of boots that year,” he said. When Donzel passed away in 2014, AJ and his father put the leather shop on hold and went into the trucking business. Eventually, AJ decided the trucking business wasn’t for him, so he sold the semi and he and his wife, Kylie, moved to Banner County.
It was there that they decided to restart the leather business. “We decided to try running the leather business again. I’m glad we did, because we have been busy,” Kylie said. “I never thought this is what I would be doing for a living, but what is special about it is that we are both here and it is something we can do together with our kids playing in the shop.”
They consider themselves fortunate that they still have all the machines to make and fix leather items, which are not easy to find. “After Doug got out of school, it took him three months to gather up all the machines needed for a leather business. Making boots is a pretty rare thing these days. It is not something that many leather shops do,” AJ said.
Kylie feels privileged to have learned to work with leather from Donzel. “One of the first things I got to make with AJ’s grandpa was a diaper bag when we were expecting our son. I still have it, and it has turned into a duffel bag for him.”
Although the majority of their business is boots, either making or fixing them, they also make other custom items out of leather. “We make anything from chaps and horse tack to overnight bags and purses,” Kylie said. They also are a retailer for Fast Back Ropes and Dale Brisby apparel, and Kylie makes purses and silk scarves. They can also repair nearly anything made from leather from boots and Birkenstock shoes to saddles.
Working in the leather shop gives the couple an opportunity to be creative. A few weeks ago, Kylie was trying to figure out how to get her daughter some pants that would be warm for the winter. “She’s only 18 months, so she’s too young for coveralls. We had some scraps of elk hide, so I decided to make her a pair of buckskin pants. What you can do in here is pretty unlimited,” she said.
But boots may be the most unique item they make. “When you get a pair finished, you can see a lot of that person’s personality come out in their boots. The majority of people we make boots for struggle to find a pair in a store that fit them properly. We had one gentleman who had arthritis really bad in his feet, and one foot was totally a different size than the other,” Kylie said.
Their boots last longer than ones purchased in a store. “AJ has some boots that have lasted 11 years now, and his dad has some that are 15-20 years old. The quality of what we make is so much better, because it is all done by hand,” Kylie said.
“I didn’t realize there’s that many steps in making a custom pair of boots, Customers usually have a picture of what they want, and we have kits we can mail to people so they can measure their feet. A lot of our business is online, and we never meet some of our customers. There is a lot of communication and pictures that go back and forth as we progress with a project.”.
“To use the kit, they basically put their foot on a piece of paper and draw around it,” AJ said. “They have to measure the ball and the instep of their foot. We match a last to their foot, and build it up for a foot that is abnormally wide or change it to custom fit their foot. The accuracy is pretty close. We haven’t had too many problems with the boots fitting.” They would prefer their local customers come into the shop for a boot fitting,
After customers measure their feet, they can select other options like how tall they want the tops of their boots, colors, type of leather and the number of rows of stitching. “We can customize the boots with anything from people’s initials or brand to most any design. We’ve made boots with anything from the Denver Broncos logo to butterflies, flowers or a longhorn cow. The possibilities are endless,” Kylie said.
Customers can also choose the type of leather. Cowhide and goat leather is the easiest to sew, but some customers prefer exotic leathers like ostrich, stingray or elephant. “The stingray is the hardest leather to sew because it has those hard glass beads that break the needle when you are sewing the foot to the top,” Kylie said.
With help from social media, the couple stays busy with customers all over the country. “A lot of our customers are from this area because AJ’s grandpa was so well known. Donzel has boots that have gone everywhere. He even made some for a guy who lived in France. There aren’t a lot of people as young as AJ and I that know how to do the stuff we do. Custom boot makers aren’t as easy to find anymore. It’s becoming a lost art,” Kylie said.
Eventually, they hope to add a storefront to their business, but for now, they rely on social media, a website, word of mouth, and fliers and business cards to get the word out. They also have drop off points in Kimball, Scottsbluff and Bridgeport for customers who need leather repairs. ❖
— Clark is a freelance livestock journalist from western Nebraska. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.