One of my favorite things about being the face of Two Hearts Wellness is the sense that I have a duty towards the readers of my blog. One does not wish to be boring or self-serving. Rather, one aspires to charm, to fascinate, and to share worthy information, thoughts, and experiences on not just health and wellness but, expanding upon the same, on any and all matters relating the a joyful and rich life. This essay, for its part, pertains to fashion and music. And so I begin, then, with a question.
To wit: what, dear reader, do Jerry Ryan of Heritage Boot, singer Elvis Costello, and writers Giovanni Boccaccio (the Decameron), Geoffrey Chaucer (Canterbury Tales), and Don Juan Manuel (El Conde Lucanor) have in common?
I’ll tell you at the end of this essay if you do not guess already.
The first time I went to Heritage Boot was about six years ago if memory serves me correctly. What I will never forget is the sense of being absolutely charmed by Jerry Ryan, the owner, and how the entire experience felt like a return to a bygone era and—equally so—a fashion forward, uniquely Austin, here-and-now exchange that garnered me not only an eventual friend but also two really wonderful pairs of boots. (Have you been to Heritage Boot yet? If not, then either get going or if you are far from Texas, at least check out their web site, here).
The original store is on South Congress and Jerry and his wife, Patty, opened a second one in Lockhart. It was purely by chance that I found the original shop; the first time I went, I had gone to browse the venue that preceded it. That business had closed though, and so—by sheer luck—I found the most wonderful boot store in Texas and was fortunate enough to do so on a slow morning when Jerry was working.
Chance and luck do smile upon me in the loveliest ways on occasion. Most recently, tickets to the Elvis Costello ACL concert at the Moody Theater came as a fortuitous surprise. A friend happened to have an extra ticket and invited me to come along. Imagine my joy when I saw that we were on the center floor about seven or so rows back from the stage. It felt like we were in someone’s living room or—better yet—given a look at someone’s backstage storage area that, for its part, was framed by what potentially signified a 1950’s era musician’s practice space. The stage was decorated with a gigantic vintage television that provided a looming context for the piano and the guitars that waited at arm’s reach from the singer. Signs flanked the television and vintage microphones stood at the ready.
The opening act was Larkin Poe, embodied in the form of sisters Rebecca and Megan Lovell, and they played a stripped down musical set that was just right for the experience that would follow. And what is this experience? Story telling. Stories narrated, stories sung, stories visually inscribed. There was time traveling and politics. Pulp fiction and Depression-era authenticity. Here and now and way back when. Costello’s set signified one thing and yet the stories he told were all brought back to social and cultural glimmerings of today. He designated this particular tour with the telling name “Detour” and that, coming from Elvis Costello, could mean anything. Can’t it? This is an artist whose bio page is entitled “Lies and Inventions” and spans twenty pages on his web site. His musical career spans forty years or so, and he just published his memoir, too, entitled Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink. The concert showed and told all of these facets of his writing and singing and storytelling voices.
The day before the concert a picture of Patty and Costello showed up on the Heritage Boot Facebook page.
Why did it not surprise me that he has boots from the coolest boot store in Texas? Back and forth commentary in response to the post revealed that Patty and Jerry were looking forward to the concert too. And yes, it was a marvel. In a show that lasted almost three hours, Costello played tried and true favorites from across the years, including crowd favorites such as: (The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes, Accidents Will Happen, Every Day I Write The Book, Watching the Detectives, Alison, Pump It Up, and (What’s so Funny ‘bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding?, among many others. What made it all so unforgettable, though, was his meta-narrative. Between and surrounding each song, this great Irish storyteller spoke, weaving memories and sensations and experiences until his audience could feel as though we were there with him when the original events occurred. And I thought to myself, listening, how it is that Irish people are such gifted tale-spinners and I thought, then, about Jerry Ryan and my first visit to Heritage Boot.
I woke up the next morning determined to ask Jerry for an interview and—ever gracious, he agreed and we had some lovely conversations about his history, about Ireland, and about his sense of creating an experience for his customers and visitors at Heritage. Jerry is, in the true sense of the word, a designer. He is also, like Elvis Costello, an incredible storyteller. (And this will not be the last blog post about Heritage Boot if I have my way—there are so many more stories to tell, as I so happily discovered during our conversation).
Jerry was born in Dublin, Ireland during a time when the city was large and growing but still wedded to the island’s rural roots. Across the street from city buildings, for instance, were fields that housed sheep. Poor newsboys wore boots paid for (and stamped by so that they could not be pawned) a charity known as the Herald Boot Fund. And though Ireland was neutral during World War II, the war did not necessarily leave the region unscathed. In 1941, for example, German bombs fell on Dublin. And, of course, through the 20th century, the Catholic church on the one hand and conflicts with England on the other dominated Irish cultural and economic development. Jerry himself was born into a reasonably comfortable family, but that is relative when one is in the Dublin of the 1950s and 60s. Dreams of cowboy boots and adventure were a potent source of joy for young Jerry Ryan.
And so, later, was travel. In his twenties, he embarked on a long and winding journey that would ultimately lead him to Austin, TX. His first stop was London, he told me, where he worked on King’s Road making Western boots and selling vintage clothing. After that, he moved on to India in the 1970s, where he made shirts and hung out with interesting people, to say the least (here, he laughed and quipped that from what he could remember, anyway, the people were interesting). Next stop? New York, where he worked in retail management and manufactured leather skirts. From there, he went to San Francisco, where again he managed a high end men’s clothing store and sold vintage Levis jeans; this, ultimately, was interspersed with a stint at Turnbull & Asser, a bespoke men’s clothier that was established in the 19th century and which dresses luminaries that include royalty, literally and of the pop culture sort, followed by the decision to move to Mexico to start a boot-making business. (Luckily for us, he ultimately decided to make Austin his home instead of Mexico).
I don’t know about you, but when I think about Irish narratives, I generally think of the poverty and the suffering that characterizes books such as Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, or Ma, He Sold Me for a Few Cigarettes: A Memoir of Dublin in the 1950s by Martha Long, or Bill Cullen’s somewhat less grim but still deeply touching It’s a Long Way from Penny Apples (which mentions the Herald Boot Fund, here). And Elvis Costello’s music of course reflects not just contemporary social commentary but also a nod back as far as the 1930s. My favorite of them during his concert was (remember, I am a Spanish Civil War literature scholar and I love the 1930s and 40s) when he sang Jimmie Standing in the Rain and concluded by riffing on the Depression-era tune Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? I had chills going down my spine at that and tears filled my eyes. (Do you know that one? If you do not, go here and read of the poignant frame that surrounds this tale. You will notice, too, the significance of Costello concluding with “brother, can you spare a dime?” rather than the true ending, which is “buddy, can you spare a dime?”).
Listening to Elvis Costello narrate his wonderful stories about his musician father and their adventures in clubs and bars, though, and listening to Jerry speak about clothes and designs and travel and his genuine love for the boots that he recreates, made me realize just how magical the mix of struggle and dreams and grit was for these two creative, vivid, hardworking Irish storytellers.
When I wandered into Heritage for the first time I was not in the market for boots. But when I saw a pair of pointy-toed black lizard boots my heart stopped. Well, just walking into the shop gave me palpitations, actually. Everything is beautiful. Everywhere you look, there are colors and arrangements and creations. The store itself is a visual narrative and a feast. One aspect that made me laugh was that there are signs that say not to touch the boots and the warnings not to take pictures. It reminded me of when I lived in Spain and later in Italy. You do not manhandle the goods in Spanish and Italian shops. A charming, knowledgeable salesperson will take good care of you and your time in the store will be an experience. And no, you don’t pull out your phone like a tourist and take pictures; instead, you experience your exchange with the merchant, you experience the joy of shopping and maybe making a purchase. The pace and tenor of a Heritage Boot visit made perfect sense in its actual context after Jerry described his retail background to me. He has diva-tude to spare, no doubt about it, but he also comes from a background where treating the customer to an experience is expected and truly a pleasure on both sides of the exchange.
That first visit, Jerry saw my eyes light up at the pointy-toed black lizard boots and had them out in the sitting area for me to try in an instant. As I put them on, he explained how his boots are made with wooden pegs instead of nails, and how the stitching is authentic, and he illuminated for me the significance of a pointy toe in stylistic terms. I tried on a couple other boots but the black lizard and pointy toes were for me. And I really had not intended to buy boots so I asked him if he could hold them overnight for me so I could think about it. They were not expensive for what they were (about six hundred dollars if I recollect properly) but even so. And yet, five years later they are as beautiful as ever. I’ve worn them so much that my investment has paid for itself…plus, I love them. They are so beautiful and so well made. And…I love them, what else can I say? (I have a pair of black leather shoes that I bought when I lived in Spain the first year; an impoverished student in Madrid, I had no business spending $150.00 on shoes. More than twenty years later, those shoes are still beautiful. Weathered, yes. But they have lasted and will last. Just like my boots.)
And in an amusing twist, I went back to the shop a month or so later to say hi and found a second pair that captivated me. Those would be this Hearts & Vines model:
I said at the time that I felt uncomfortable buying two serious purchases so close together because the newness and joy of the first pair was still so fresh. However, the boots are made in small batches and once they are gone, they may not come back again. But, I said, I just couldn’t buy a second pair right after buying my first pair while I was still savoring the experience of the first pair. Jerry totally understood my reasoning and he actually allowed me to put the boots on layaway so that I could reserve my pair but draw out the exquisite happiness of my beautiful new boots too. I came in and paid fifty or a seventy-five dollars a month for about eight or so months and when I was ready for the joy of a new pair, I made my last payment and took them home on my birthday. It’s not just the creating for Jerry; it’s the lived experience and the exchange. It’s theater. It’s storytelling. It’s art. And he genuinely enjoys making each purchase an experience for the customer. (If he is not there, the people he selects to represent his and Patty’s business—aka the boot mavens—are also charming, knowledgeable, and attentive even if you are just popping by to make a layaway payment. This I know for sure!)
Our interview really did focus on his background and history. I said, at the very beginning of it that I loved Elvis Costello’s way of framing his songs in stories. I said it reminded me of the store, and how the boots are framed by Jerry’s larger than life history. The next interview and blog post I do (I’m going to pester him and I’m sure he will humor me) is going to be individual boot stories. For now, though, and in the interests of not letting this story go on for too long, I would like to conclude by pointing out one other thing that I loved about the Elvis Costello concert and—of course—connect it within this tale. To wit: Larkin Poe opened for Costello but during parts of his encore, he had them come out and play and sing with him. They are up and coming musicians and this surely was a tremendous honor for them to share a stage with someone like Elvis Costello. He showcased them and gave them an opportunity to shine on stage next to him. I took note of their sparkling eyes and the happiness in their faces. This, for me, was a small detail that spoke to me as a former professor. I found it very touching. And when Jerry took the time to speak with me—here I am, a new small local business—I know that my face was glowing and I felt inspired and encouraged too. I myself aspire to have the equivalent of a quirky, local, authentic, small batch, handmade business conducted with diva-tude and flair too and I knew I was learning from one of the best when Jerry talked to me about what made him become who he is now as a designer, a boot seller, and a consummate raconteur.
So…what do Jerry Ryan of Heritage Boot, singer Elvis Costello, and writers Giovanni Boccaccio (the Decameron), Geoffrey Chaucer (Canterbury Tales), and Don Juan Manuel (El Conde Lucanor) have in common? Well…all are vivid, layered, and phenomenal storytellers who are famous for their use of the frame tale as their most characteristic genre. The writers—one Italian, one English, and one Spanish—are some of my favorite early examples of masters of the frame tale (short stories framed—just like Elvis Costello’s concert set with its giant television—by a larger narrative conceit or, in the case of Jerry Ryan, his pilgrimages from one fascinating locale to the next in the service of retail adventures). For each, the art of narrative is something to savor, something to encompass a specific and rich history even as it comments on the present moment. A great story is a great story. And for all of them, there’s the big picture—the frame—and then, within, the short stories that go beautifully together but which can stand alone as separate pieces, too. Just like a single pair of boots or one individual song.
A Heritage Boot pair of fancy footwear is the culmination of Jerry’s childhood experience and imagination, his travels, his work and play in high-end retail, and his genuine love of theater.
Each design is true to its very first iteration in the 1930s, 40s, 50s, and/or 60s. When recreating vintage fashions, he told me, Jerry finds old photographs or he looks in books and magazines; the point is to find authentic depictions of real boots in their original time period. At heart, Jerry a designer who pays homage to the greats with exacting attention to every detail. And though the recreation of each style is faithful to its origin, Jerry’s sense of tactile and visual engagement with each creation means that he will only use the very best material. Rather than any old cowhide (as period boots were wont to be made back in their time), Heritage Boot footwear is always going to be made from Italian leather or the highest quality reptile skin available. In sum, you get the original manifestation, but better in its retelling.
What matters is this: each pair is made by hand, and each pair will tell a story, both in its history and contemporary construction and in its lived experience on your feet. From the moment you look at the web site or walk in the store, you’ll see it and you’ll feel it. And when you take home your brand-new boots and are confident that you’ll love them forever, well…you’ll see. But that’s another story for another day, isn’t it?
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