by Jennifer Fulford, East Coast Bureau Chief
Custom bootmaker Mark Schumacher likes people. He expects to be interrupted by them at his shop on a daily basis, whether he’s teaching a new student, working on his assembly line of four to eight pairs, or giving phone interviews to magazine reporters.
Wait a minute, someone just came in for a fitting. Have to finish the call tomorrow.
Schumacher, 58, is just a busy bootmaker. On average, he completes seventy pairs of boots a year (or as many as 100) and a couple of saddles, too. After twenty-eight years, he finally, for the most part, on a good day, when all is said and done, feels like he’s got the business and the craft figured out.
Not that he considers himself a successful businessman or star leatherworker. He laughs frequently and easily when asked questions like, When did you feel like you knew what you were doing?
“Maybe just last year,” he chuckles. “Nine times outta ten, you are your own problem.”
But problems don’t walk out of Schumacher Custom Boots & Saddles in Wolsey, SD. The proprietor has little tolerance for products that fail to meet customers’ satisfaction. He guarantees boots that fit. A custom boot should fit, he says, end of story.
“It truly is a custom business, custom fit. I guarantee the fit,” he says. “If you are going to make a custom product, you want it to work for the customer.”
To make sure his guarantee sticks, he requires customers to come in person for the fitting. It’s mandatory. In person, he’s certain the measurements are correct, and he has a chance to talk to the buyer about any special needs. This doesn’t mean his boots get built any faster. His backlog is eleven months.
So with up to ten pairs in process on the workbench, he invests about fifteen to twenty hours a pair to fulfill his orders. He makes his own patterns, as he’s always done. Pattern-making and the intricacies of figuring out the puzzle intrigued him from the beginning. He learned rudimentary boot making skills by taking a class from Randall Merrell [founder of Merrill Boot which still makes footwear today] in Utah in the late ‘70s, where pattern making was emphasized. He learned he had an affinity for patterns after taking a quick aptitude test about spatial forms.
“I was off the chart,” he says. “I didn’t know that I was good at it.”
He emphasizes pattern making when he teach his own students who travel to him occasionally throughout the year and spend two weeks and $4,000 for his instruction. He only teaches one student at a time. Recently, he’s hired a few high school students to do a little work around the shop, too. Still, walk-ins come first. Over the years, he’s just found it makes more sense to deal right away with customer interruptions.
“Right from the start, I tell them [students], ‘This is a working shop, and you will see people come in, and they will bother me and bother you,’ but this is the way it is,” he explains.
The store is conveniently located near major east-west (US 14) and north-south (US 281) thoroughfares. Souix Falls is two hours south. Many people driving by the shop are curious and stop in, so his customer base is local and also not-so-local. His prices are neither cheap nor are they outrageous. His basic boots start at $750 for common leathers and around $1,500 for exotics. He loves to work with elephant and has used elephant since he began making boots. He calls it the “greatest boot leather ever.”
“I really love working with elephant. It’s just easy,” he says. “It breathes well. They form up good. Every customer just loves ‘em.”
By all accounts, Schumacher should have been a cattle rancher. He went to school in the late ‘70s and studied animal science at South Dakota State, thinking he’d raise Angus cattle. But when he finished his degree, the farm economy in the U.S. was tanking. Instead, he became a ranch hand and split his time between Oklahoma and South Dakota. Then he insinuated himself into the saddle shop of Milton Crawford Lee. He ended up learning about saddle making and marrying Lee’s daughter. He and Susan have been married since 1979.
“M.C. built a lot of saddles and passed away when he was in his early 50’s. I learned quite a bit from him and worked for him whenever I had spare time. When I was in college, I’d go over about two days a week and talked him into helping him out and learning. He said, ‘You bet. You can ask one question a day.’”
Schumacher already had experience tooling leather and making smaller items such as belts throughout college which helped him earn spending money and a little tuition. He wasn’t a newbie, but after spending time in Lee’s saddle shop and going to the Merrell boot school, it was basically the School of Hard Knocks.
“It’s always tough when you start a business from scratch. This was a start-from-scratch business. We did everything. We fixed saddles and fixed boots and built boots and built saddles, maybe a couple of saddles a year. We didn’t really start building saddles until five years after we built boots.”
Boots take up most of his time. He says he makes more work boots than anything else, but he posts the “pretty” Western boots on his Facebook page and website, SchumacherBootsandSaddles.com. Several include black ostrich and kangaroo with colored inlays. (see boot photos pinkblack.jpg and blackred.jpg) He’s proud to report that even his fancier boots get worn. He’s a sponsor of Miss Rodeo South Dakota and makes the queen a new pair every year. He also is an amateur rodeo participant and competes in the senior men’s breakaway and team roping events held by the South Dakota Rodeo Association.
“We’ve certainly put out a fair volume of product and work, so we’ve always made some money,” he says, though not a killing. “When we were having a recession, a friend of mine was asking me, ‘How is your business? Have you noticed any difference?’ Well, not really, but I was a failure during the boom.” Again, he chuckles.
Minutes before a customer interrupts us, he surmises, “The only reason I’ve done it for twenty-eight years is I’m too darn hard headed to do anything else.”
To reach Mark Schumacher at Schumacher Custom Boots & Saddles, call him at (605) 883-4554 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. His website is www.SchumacherBootsandSaddles.com. The shop is located at 110 Commercial Ave., Wolsey, SD, 57384.