By Danna Burns-Shaw
Little’s Boots is a 100-year-old family business with “heart and sole.” Building the highest quality boots, with four generations of family boot makers, Little’s is in an elite group of legacy bootmakers. As the 86-year-old, 3rd Generation owner Dave Little states, “That’s why you don’t see many small custom boot houses; most of them eventually either get bought out or decide to go into larger production to survive, and that is when you lose the quality. If you think about it, all the big brands – Lucchese, Tony Lama, Justin, Nocona – were all custom boot makers originally, but as time progressed they got bought out by big corporations. They started doubling up and now some of them make even up to a thousand pairs of boots in one day. You can only do so much without going excessive, overworking your people and not doing the detail work that you used to do. By not doing the detail work, you lose quality…boot making is a very difficult trade.”
Dave’s wife, Mary Jane, was also raised in a family business; a business that has also lasted over 100 years, Volner’s Meat Market. Mary Jane’s brothers still have the business, located just a few miles from Little’s Boots, where they have been retailing and wholesaling meat since 1914. Mary Jane (84) and Dave still pop into the shop and check on how Sharon and Duane (their children) are doing, making sure there is no rash on their baby, Little’s Boots.
Owning a family business for over 100 years, many are curious how it sustains and grows generation after generation. To be a centurion business you must have a handful of key traits to endure the ever changing business landscape, strong core values and a commitment to quality and excellence, that when practiced will sustain and overcome the many obstacles that come with evolving a business over 10 decades. But one thing is certain: it is all about the people, the owners, their team, and their supporters and clients. Every one of Little’s boots has been built the “old school” way, by expert hands one at a time.
Lucien Little was the first in the family to step into the footwear business. Originally from the small Texas town of Pearsall, Texas, Lucien dreamed of a better life in the big city of San Antonio. So in 1912 the thrill-seeking, personable, energetic 20-year-old left his roots and headed north to San Antonio. Upon arriving in the bustling Alamo City, Lucien landed a job as a shoe salesman. During three successful years selling shoes and boots across San Antonio and South Texas, Lucien absorbed everything he could about the footwear industry. The eager entrepreneur decided to take the plunge and go out on his own, opening his own store in 1915. Initially offering factory-made footwear, it was the addition of a repair department that would eventually refocus the Little family’s business plan, from selling “off-the-rack” shoes to manufacturing and creating world-class, custom western boots.
Lucien’s son Ben came into the business in the ‘40s. Always intrigued and impressed by the skills his father’s repairmen demonstrated, Ben started having the repairmen make well-built work boots. The word spread quickly with the South Texas cattlemen; Little’s Boots was the place to go to get the best built work boots. Ben’s creative juices began to flow and he sought to build fancier versions, featuring snipped toes, under-slung heels, inlays, overlays and multiple rows of stitching on the uppers.
At this time, Hollywood was churning out Westerns filled with the glitz of singing cowboys and cowgirls, like Gene Autry, Tom Mix, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. The silver screen showed the country a whole new level of western fashion, with over-the-top designs and heavy embellishments. With the general public now desiring boots built for fashion, not just function, Ben decided to split the production between functional boots and fashionable boots, completely discontinuing the sales of shoes.
Ben’s two sons, John and Dave, joined the prosperous family business in the late ‘50s. Raised around the boot shop, they learned early on the 100-step process required to build world-class Little’s boots. Then the unfortunate death of their father, Ben, occurred in 1966 and the business was dropped in the boy’s laps, to carry on what their Grandfather Lucien had started 50 years earlier.
As company co-heads, the capable pair remained committed to the family traditions of quality and impeccable service that their forefathers were known and revered for, learning with every hardship and overcoming the many challenges of working side-by-side with family members.
Eventually, Dave and his wife, Mary Jane took over the business in 1975. Dave decided to limit the company’s production to the high-end, completely custom, handmade Western dress boots. With decades of developing the best boot possible, the Little’s were primed for success when the movie, Urban Cowboy was released in 1980, extending Little’s customer base by making western wear cool and fashionable.
Dave and Mary Jane had given many years of love and dedication to Little’s Boots. The longest of any of the previous owners, they have passed the torch to their daughter Sharon (president) and son Duane (production manager). In fact, Mary Jane had been the office manager for decades until just recently. Sharon had hired her niece to come in and help out around the office, and Mary Jane decided to give her two week notice…via text.
All the Little children worked in the business. Sharon, one of their four children, has fond memories of working in the shop after school and on Saturdays. Sharon worked in the shop throughout high school and during college, joining the business full time in 1985. Sharon used her skills, and soon was handling the bookkeeping and sales. Dave and Mary Jane groomed the fourth generation owner nicely; teaching her to stay in the lane of quality boot makers, with conscious organic growth, providing old and new customers the remarkable products that they have been producing for over 100 years. Sharon’s brother, Duane, also works in the business; he does all of the measuring and works in the shop to make sure the measurements match up with the custom lasts they use. Duane and Sharon were both taught that to have correctly constructed, custom boots you need incredible attention to every detail. There are over a hundred steps in building a Little’s custom boot: starting with custom measurement and ending with a wearable work of art that will last a lifetime.
The Tradition Continues
For 100 years and through four generations, experience has taught the Little’s that the best approach to achieving quality is to use top-grade materials, outstanding design and most importantly, talented experienced craftsmen. The Little’s have found and developed remarkable craftsmen that take pride in their work. Dave states, “There is no other shop that has a better group of craftsmen that are more dedicated to the preservation of quality. The development of new techniques and our unique blend of traditional Old West style and modern styling have provided the new smooth line for Little’s – the great boot appearance and our ideal fit. We have also established a unique fitting system. We are proud of our family business and the fact that it has been operated by the same family for 100 years!”
Word of Mouth
Little’s Boots has sustained a boot factory for over 100 years by only selling retail, not wholesale, and their entire advertising budget is strictly by word of mouth. Taking care of folks, so those folks will spread the good word to their acquaintances, Little’s has a fine reputation as the place to get true custom boots. When someone receives a perfectly fit boot with outstanding detail, they want to share with their friends and family – all the cool details in the design, who they worked with and where they had them made.
Many of Little’s customers are collectors, buying a new pair of boots yearly…yes; these custom boots come with an addiction warning! After 100 years in the custom boot business, the Little’s have booted up a lot of famous people: rock stars, movie stars, politicians, billionaires, cattle and oil barons to name a few. However, your status does not matter when you go into Little’s; they treat everyone like the most important person in the world. No wonder they have successfully continued what Lucien started, way back at the turn of the 20th Century.
Little’s Boot Company
110 Division Ave.
San Antonio, TX 78214
This article originally appeared in shoptalk-magazine.com and is reprinted here with permission.