The Name's Bond … Paul BondEven without the sophisticated gadgetry of 007, Paul Bond is a force to be reckoned with. Not as an international spy, but as a 94-year-old boot maker — one of the best in the world.
By Kelly Kramer
Nogales Smell a swatch of leather and you're likely to experience some sort of olfactory flashback — to the sleeves of a letterman's jacket, the saddle on the back of your horse during some long-ago dude ranch getaway, a baseball glove. And when you're standing in the middle of Paul Bond Boots, those same scent-memories will probably kick in for a few minutes, at least until your eyes take over and the awe sets in.
They're red and royal blue; mottled, mocha calfskin; soft, vampy swaths of sharkskin. One pair is in the image of the Arizona state flag. Another bears a bald-eagle inlay. Still another boasts the brilliant pink petals of a thistle. All of them — every single pair — are the brainchildren of Paul Bond.
At 94, Bond might not be what you'd expect. He plays golf at least once a week and travels, on occasion, to Lake Montezuma for a tournament or two. He is perfectly pressed. He wears a cowboy hat the way a gentleman wears a cowboy hat, and he tips it just a smidge when he greets a lady.
Slight but strong, he visits the shop every day, overseeing the 12 employees who lovingly refer to him as "Mr. B." He's been making boots for 77 years, and he likes to wear his with his pants tucked in — because that's how real cowboys wear cowboy boots.
"I started making boots for someone else when I was in high school," Bond says. "And I've been doing it ever since."
For almost 60 of those 77 years, Bond has been in Nogales, the town known for its proximity to the Mexican border and named in Spanish for the walnut trees that once grew in abundance there. For a stretch, the business was on the Mexican side of the border, but in 1979, Bond moved it to its current location — a massive, barn-like structure that sits just off Mariposa Boulevard on the Arizona side.
Although he moved to Nogales from Carlsbad, New Mexico, for the ease of finding skilled, dedicated workers, he stayed for the sky and the breeze and the sunshine.
"I came to this little, out-of-the-way place because the freeway was coming through and the business boomed when that happened," he says. "But the climate is absolutely the best there is."
Boot shops are like ice cream shops, at least that's the way Bond sees them. People walk in happy and walk out even happier. Roughly 2,000 pairs of Paul Bond Boots leave the shop every year. That's 2,000 flavors and then some — custom-made and handcrafted for regular Joes and celebrities alike.
In fact, there's been an endless string of cowboys, country-music crooners and movie stars who've come to Bond for boots over the years. Think Gene Autry, Baxter Black, Bart Skelton. Perhaps it's the cowboys to whom Bond best relates. As a teenager, he lived and worked on a ranch, breaking-in cavalry horses. Later, he became a champion bareback and trick rider in rodeos around the Southwest.
"Gee whiz, I liked to show off and I figured I could ride pretty good, so I went off to the rodeo," he says. "I made it all right for a while, but it's a rather short career as life goes. I still get on a horse pretty regularly these days — a nice, gentle horse. I can play the part of a cowboy."
Clint Eastwood has a pair of Paul Bond boots, and so did Paul Newman — not to mention Frank Sinatra and Steve McQueen. Aerosmith's Joe Perry and alt-country musician Dwight Yoakam have rocked a few pairs. Rodeo clown Wes Curtis' chimpanzee owned a pair of Paul Bond boots, and judging from Bond's laugh, you get the feeling that measuring those ape feet was an experience he hadn't thought of in a while.
More impressive than his knack for simian sizing, however, is Bond's ability to remember the boot sizes of so many of his clients. Take, for example, the Duke.
"John Wayne had a pretty good sized foot," Bond remembers. "An 11E. He used to come down here quite a bit because he had some property nearby, and he and his wife had a lot of friends in the area. He'd always leave with a bunch of boots on order." Johnny Cash was a half-size bigger.
It takes a lot of leather to make all those boots, and Bond and his wife, Margaret, take great pride in selecting it. They travel to market in Boston to meet with tanners from across the globe — from France to Australia and beyond.
"Margaret has done a lot of designing, and when we go to market, she's great with color and texture," Bond says. "Women see things differently. They have a very critical eye." Ultimately, Margaret's eye and Mr. B's craftsmanship don't just create boots, they create art — wearable, enviable, individual works of art.
When they're not researching leather or spending time in the shop, Paul and Margaret Bond are on the road, traveling between Nogales and their second home in Carlsbad.
"I enjoy making boots just about as much as anything else, but we love to drive," Bond says. "We always drive the same roads, but, each time, there's something interesting on them. No matter what, though, I'm always so glad to get back home. That's the best part of the journey."