Mike Ryan of Ryan's Boot and Shoe Repair works on a pair of boots. Ryan's shop recently moved from its long-time Last Chance Gulch location to a spot at 919 Euclid Ave. Photo by Jesse Varnado.
Walking into Ryan’s Boot and Shoe Repair, the first thing that hits you is the earthy aroma of leather. Your eyes wander over rows of boots, stacks of lasts (boot forms), long strands of leather laces, and all types of industrial tools. In the middle of all this is owner, Mike Ryan, carefully focused on sewing a mule ear onto a pair of new turquoise boots he’s building while his dog “Boots” lies nearby.
Ryan is a master of a nearly lost art: he makes and sells custom, hand-made boots the same way they did back in the frontier heydays that gave rise to the state of Montana.
He admits that he always had an interest in the trade. Thanks to the G.I. Bill in 1976, the V.A. paid for Ryan to start learning his craft. His training included an apprenticeship on fixing shoes and he attended a boot-making school in Billings.
After honing his skills, Ryan set up shop in Bozeman for six years. He later relocated to set up his permanent shop on Helena’s historic Last Chance Gulch in 1986.
Ryan offers a full range of shoe/boot repairs at his shop, including women’s shoes. Repair work also extends to belts, purses, and even the occasional piece of hockey gear, much to his chagrin.
But Ryan’s true passion lies in sculpting high-quality boots by hand. The fact that he is part of a dying breed of people still able to do this brings him satisfaction. “How many people do you know who can make boots?” Ryan asked smiling. The best moments for him are when a customer comes in, tries on their new boots and says, “Now this is a pair of boots!”
Custom boots by Ryan cost around $800, $700 without stitching. But Ryan said most of his customers aren’t wealthy. They are just tired of “junk” and want to buy items of high quality.
“My boots outlast anything on the market by at least five times over,” said Ryan. Part of the reason for this is his use of wooden pegs instead of nails, which rot the leather.
Ryan has quite a track record for making boots too, having made between five and six thousand pairs since starting his business. He says he tries to make or rebuild about 7 pairs of boots every two weeks.
When asked to explain how a pair of boots is made, Ryan just chuckled and said, “It’s hard to explain how to do it. Ya almost have to go to school to learn how to explain it.” One thing is for sure though, the actual process is incredibly involved and time consuming. According to Ryan, it takes him about 24 hours to make a single pair of slip-on cowboy boots and 16 hours for lace ups.
People’s appreciation for such quality work is evident by the fact that customers from all over the country flock to see him, including from Colorado, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Alaska. And Ryan is obviously doing something right because his customers learn of him strictly by word of mouth since he does no advertising whatsoever.
For the most part, making boots is routine for Ryan. There is, however, the occasional odd request or interesting customer.
One time a man flew in from Pennsylvania and asked Ryan if he would make a pair of boots for him with the hide of his deceased dog embroidered into them. Ryan told him he would make the tops of the boots for him but that he would have to have someone else do the embroidery. After finishing the embroidery, Ryan said he would put the boots together.
“It was a little creepy,” he said.
Ryan has even served a celebrity customer or two. Legendary designer Liz Claiborne once sought out his services. The first time she came in, Ryan admitted that he didn’t recognize her. She wanted a pair of boots that she could both ride in and dress up in. Ryan explained that she would need two different pairs of boots for that. Claiborne’s husband was waiting in the store for her while she ordered her boots and Ryan remembered him impatiently tapping his foot on the floor. Claiborne explained to Ryan that his impatience was because their jet was waiting to take them to L.A. for dinner that evening. Ryan was dumbstruck that someone would fly clear to another state just for dinner, but that was the moment he realized who she was. Before she passed away from cancer, Clairborne ordered three more pairs of boots from Ryan. “We got along just plum perfect,” said Ryan.
Not much has changed in 26-plus years at Ryan’s Boot and Shoe Repair, but recently they made a substantial change by moving shop to 919 Euclid Avenue, where they reopened on Monday, June 4.
This new location offers their customers more convenient access with its increased parking area. Ryan will use this new space to continue doing what he does best and perfect his newly acquired skill of making men’s dress shoes, which he learned at a school in Medford, Ore.
At the end of the day, Ryan does what he does out of love.
“I’m doing this for my own satisfaction,” he said. “I get to work by myself, for myself.” He attributes his success to this sincere passion. “In this business, you either really like it, or you don’t make it,” he said.