At San José’s Esquina Vaquera (Cowboy Corner), you won’t have to walk far to sample a kickin’ clutter of designs that have outfitted urban and rural cowboys and girls of multiple nationalities for the past 20 years.
Eight boot and leather goods stores and workshops are clustered on a street parallel to Paseo Colón, near the Mercedes-Benz Tower, offering a selection of Costa Rican made boots, hats, belts, vests, saddles and accessories hung from racks and displayed on shelves in picturesque disarray.
Storeowners at the Esquina Vaquera agree clients, particularly foreign ones, are drawn to their affordable prices, starting at ¢19,500 (approximately $40) for a simple pair of boots.
While saddles start at ¢35,000 ($70), the ever-popular leather jackets go for ¢75,000 ($150) and bargaining is acceptable at some stores.
According to Jaime Rosales, owner of Calzado JR, these are relatively comfortable prices compared to the United States, for example, where a pair of imitation leather boots can cost $200, and real leather boots can cost $500.
Nearby, storeowner Walter Cárdenas claims to have inaugurated the area’s first boot store, Calzado Cárdenas, 20 years ago.
Cárdenas, who learned to make shoes at age 18 from his uncle, runs the store with his ex-wife Celenia Cortés, who said she stayed in the business after the divorce for the sake of their children Helen, 14, Michael, 9, and María José, 3.
“At first it was very hard; we had to (practically) beg people to buy our boots. This type of commerce had not yet been exploited,” said Cortés, who started working alongside Cárdenas 16 years ago.
Now, the store, located in an old wooden home, attracts a steady stream of national and international clients, who return to the store every time they visit Costa Rica, and has drawn Latin American and U.S. stars such as Phillip Michael Thomas, co-star of the popular U.S. TV series Miami Vice, staff from the Peruvian children’s show “NubeLuz,” and the Mexican telenovela (soap opera) “Dos mujeres, un camino,” (Two Women, One Road), Cortés told The Tico Times.
Rosales said cowboy boots are experiencing a boom right now, particularly with the rise of cowboy movies and soap operas, such as the Colombian Pasión de Gavilanes (Passion of Sparrow Hawks), which aired in Costa Rica last year. He estimates that within the past year, his sales have increased by 30-40%.
Shoemaker Jesús López, who has been with Calzado Cárdenas for 15 years, works his magic at the workshop next to the store, where he stitches and nails material together to produce approximately a pair of boots each day.
“Hardly any shoemakers are left; we are facing extinction,” López said, as he explained how to attach a boot top to a sole either by stitching it together with a giant needle or a sewing machine, or by nailing it together. López, who learned his trade in his youth from a man called “Masayita,” from Masaya, Nicaragua, fashions boots in several different styles, in addition to those he custom-makes.
Although the storeowners at Esquina Vaquera purchase their leather from wholesalers in downtown San José, clients are welcome to bring in their own material for their custom designs.
The available styles differ in the fact that some boots are nailed to the soles while others are stitched, and in the latter the seams vary in location and appearance, Cortés explained. For example, the Czech has exposed seams, and the empalmilladas have hand-stitched seams tucked out of sight.
Boots also vary in their general shape, with pointy and square fronts claiming the most purchases in his store, said Rosales, originally from the northwestern province of Guanacaste, Costa Rica’s cowboy country.
With a similar boot variety available in most of the stores, the fact that they coexist in such close quarters does not pose a problem, according to Gerardo Aguilera, owner of Calzado Aguilera, which has been on the Esquina for almost 20 years and expanded across the street from its original site.
“The competition is good. If someone doesn’t find something in one store, they can go to the next,” said Aguilera, a first-generation Costa Rican of Nicaraguan ancestry who inherited the boot-making tradition from his father and grandfather.
Aguilera and Rosales said they do not fear greater competition under the proposed free-trade agreement with the United States.
“(Leather) products from (the United States) would be more expensive, and boots have different shapes there, people (here) are used to these,” Rosales said.
Cortés, on the other hand, said she worries cheaper products might flood the Costa Rican market – though she admitted she knows little about the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA).
In the meantime, the Cowboy Corner storeowners will continue to rely on wordof-mouth advertising, as they are confident the quality of their products speaks for itself.
For more information, call Calzado Aguilera at 256-5390, Calzado Cárdenas at 233-5261, or Calzado JR at 258-6342.
Cowboy Corner is located on Calle 26 and Avenida 3, 200 meters north and 10 meters west of the Mercedes-Benz Tower on Paseo Colón.