Bootmaker Deana McGuffin is one of the last of a dying breed
Local Bootmaker One of Only a Handful of Women
An afternoon spent with Deana McGuffin is a couple hours spent exploring the changing mores of America, our work ethic, our rampant consumerism, and facing up to the simple truth that they just don’t make them like they used to.
She’s talking about the things we use.
And the things we wear.
Specifically, our footwear.
And because she’s in the business of bootmaking.
McGuffin, a third-generation master bootmaker who has been living and working in Albuquerque’s South Valley for more than 30 years, remembers a time before it was common practice to abandon an item at the first sign of damage.
Think of that printer that stopped working. Or that old flip phone.
Just one generation removed from the Great Depression, McGuffin’s parents were raised in a time when if you wanted something, usually, you had to make it yourself.
“They repaired it and repaired it, and made it last,” she said.
Nowadays, “People get so impatient with everything,” she said, recalling her upbringing. Back then, “People weren’t so tense. They took more joy in life.”
Tough times made for tough people who worked hard but still “took the time to smell the roses.”
Now, it’s all about convenience and efficiency, she said, where getting the most for the least usually entails getting it without having to wait.
By contrast, McGuffin’s product, handmade custom boots made from scratch from strips of leather, involve a lot of waiting. A single pair of boots may require 40 hours of work. Depending on how many orders she’s processing, the wait for a pair of her boots is six to 12 weeks. They start at $2,800.
McGuffin’s grandfather, C.C. McGuffin, pulled up stakes in Texas to set up his boot store in Roswell in 1915. His son, L.W., followed C.C. into the bootmaking trade. Deana took up the craft in 1981, apprenticing under her father before setting up shop in Clovis then later moving to Albuquerque.
She recalls, “Dad tried to teach me all this stuff when I was a kid and I just didn’t have the patience to learn it.” It wasn’t until her thirties that she was capable of the level of appreciation required to learn the trade of bootmaking.
“It finally occurred to me that here’s a dying art that not too many people even do anymore, and it (would have been) crazy for me not to at least learn it, whether or not I ever did it,” she said. “At least learn it.”
Another sign of the times: McGuffin said it took her an entire year to convince her dad that she could learn to make handmade boots.
“He didn’t think girls could do that kind of work,” she said.”
She estimates that of the 250 or so bootmakers in the country, fewer than 15 are women.
“It does require some hand strength,” McGuffin admitted, but there’s more to it than that. “I do some things differently, but women always do,” she said. “We learn to leverage, for things we don’t have the brute strength to do.”
As someone who came of age in the 1960s, “when a lot of those ceilings were broken,” improvising went well beyond the workshop, she said, citing “the civil rights movements, the women’s movements – all that really changed the country.”
But the struggle for social equity isn’t over simply because a woman can run her own business in a male-dominated industry. The bootmaking business is still male-dominated. In the end, however, “parts is parts,” McGuffin said.
“As far as I know,” she said recalling an interaction with a rudely skeptical client, “there’s only one thing that men bootmakers have that women don’t have, and none of them use it to make boots with.”
It’s hard to overstate the impact the Industrial Revolution had on artisan craftsmanship here and in Britain. What followed next was mass production. Today, in the minds of many, especially Americans, the Industrial Age long ago was eclipsed by a digitized, technology-driven Information Age, in which computer-gazing millennials “don’t really know what it is to actually make something.”
“My generation is probably about the last one,” she said. “We came from industrial families; we came from farm families; we came from families that knew how to do things.”
“When you make something – actually build something with your own hands, even if you just cook, make pizza or something – if you do it yourself, it gives you a whole different perspective on many different things, it gives you a little more respect,” McGuffin said.
Although handcrafted goods aren’t in steep demand these days, handmade boots appear to be making a resurgence, McGuffin said.
If artisans are the last of a dying breed, Deana McGuffin is doing more than most to save her craft.
She offers a bootmaking workshop in the way of a “learning vacation,” during which she teaches students the process of making their own boots from start to finish. A two-week class costs $3,800, which includes the boots.
The best students are those who genuinely want to learn, McGuffin said. “I really love to see the young kids coming in, and some are really good.”
Just as importantly, McGuffin said her shop is also on a bit of a rebound.
“When the economy crashed, my business crashed hard,” she said. “It’s now beginning to come back a little bit.”