kickin’ it old school

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by Cassie McClure
photographs by Nohemy Gonzalez

Handcrafted boots, traditional technique, and a riot of color at Rocketbuster

Texans are so famously fond of their boots that in 2007 the cowboy boot was named the state’s official shoe. In El Paso, Rocketbuster has been drawing fans of custom cowboy boots for decades. Rocketbuster’s warehouse spans the length of a city block, but its brick-lined walls and buzzy atmosphere make the shop feel cozy and inviting. A vividly colored collection of vintage items hints at the eclectic designs you’ll find on the company’s handcrafted, one-of-a-kind boots.

Nevena Christi, the face of Rocketbuster, glides through the shop with a practiced eye for each detail being painted, etched, or sewn in various corners throughout the open layout. Every custom boot made for a customer is special and pieced together with inspiration and hard work.

Christi came to El Paso in 1994 to commission boots for a New York fashion show. She fell in love with Rocketbuster owner Marty Snortum—a professional photographer who had traded a car for the company in 1989—and moved to the Sun City to be with Snortum and run the shop. Back then, their Anthony location wasn’t nearly as hip, surrounded as it was by dirt roads and near a park full of dumpsters.

Today, Rocketbuster—in its Union Plaza location, decked out with racks of boots and collectibles—has become a must-visit destination for travelers from around the world. Recently, it was a group of Australians who marveled at what they found and requested a tour to see everything, from the collections of boots to workspaces loaded with specialty tools and paint, and of course the Guinness Book of World Records’ “World’s Largest Boots,” which sit tall and proud in the center of it all.   

“It’s a brilliant time in El Paso—we get people from all over the world who find that there are these little gems,” Christi says. “We’re happy to be an ambassador of the town.”

“We have a hand-stacked leather heel, 100 lemonwood pegs in each boot, no plastic. It’s totally old school but with more art.”—Nevena Christi 

People who come for a tour can witness the art design and sewing process, and see the basement where boots are born. As the number of artisanal leather crafters drops around the country, more traditional boot makers are starting to close shop, but Christi continues to welcome an abundance of clients seeking originality in design. The challenge is working with clients used to traditional cowboy boots. Christi’s goal is to inspire people to think beyond the brown, functional boot, and to have them incorporate their personalities for a perfectly fitted pair. “We’re making heirlooms for the future,” she notes.

Christi recalls that actor Ethan Hawke had stopped by the previous month to outfit a co-star with a pair of boots, and to show off his own Rocketbusters, a pair purchased 13 years ago. In one spot you’ll find signed photos from clients such as Taylor Swift, Brooks & Dunn, Julia Roberts, Steven Spielberg, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Once a pair of boots goes to its owner, it seems to become a slight addiction; according to Christi, over 75 percent of their customers come back to order another pair.

“We have a hand-stacked leather heel, 100 lemonwood pegs in each boot, no plastic,” she explains. “It’s totally old school but with more art.”

As for what’s possible, she cites one woman’s particularly memorable order. “She brought an inch of paperwork and wanted 52 items—a Bible verse, her kids, her Jeep, Texas bluebonnets,” laughs Christi. But of course, it’s that very thing that sets Rocketbuster apart from everyone else—the ability to turn everyday things into wearable (and walkable) art.