Mervin Stilson’s basement studio space is warm in the summertime. A humming fan barely cools the muggy air. The cracking walls expose the stone foundation, like an Old World building in Prague. Stilson works among other artists, their tools, material, and artwork, including a portrait of himself in fishing gear. At his station, a Artisan post machine sits in front of a wall of cobbler tools. A rack is full of handmade leather boots, loafers, sandals, and moccasins. He wears a pair of strappy sandals to go with casual clothes, his cigarette, and beer in a plastic cup. His hands still have the day’s work on them.
“I have a really bad addiction to footwear,” Stilson said.
Stilson represents a dying breed of makers and handymen. His priesthood is the value of quality, repairable goods, unlike the paper and plastic “toy shoes” that have to be carried through the doors of Landis Shoe Shop, a shoe repair store where he works full-time.
“(His story) sounded like a fable,” said Tim Kapustka, a founding member of Studio & Gallery and Stilson’s close friend and fishing buddy.
It turns out Stilson’s life story is a sort of parable. Starting with a last name that is fitting for a boot brand, an undeniable series of events lead Stilson toward shoe making. His story starts at an industrial orphanage in Troy, New York.
“I was 3 years old when they placed me in the orphanage with 400 other kids,” Stilson said. “I can see that day. I can see my hands gripping the door-jamb, them peeling my fingers off of that, and them carrying me into that place.”
It was in the orphanage that Stilson started sewing. He’d create Halloween costumes for other kids who would come to him with Frankenstein and mummy requests.
“I’ve always been into making stuff. That was an outlet of mine,” Stilson said. “It has to do with self-worth. If I can be of help to my fellow human beings, I feel good about myself. “
Stilson doesn’t have a distinct memory of when his interest in shoes began. In the orphanage, he wore cheap Ked sneakers and oxfords. He always asked for a pair of cowboy boots for Christmas, and one year, he finally got a black pair with white typing and a red eagle. He also got a sled. Stilson broke his arm on the sled the first day, and the bulky cast prevented him from pulling the boots up. By the time his arm healed, the boots no longer fit.
“There’s all kinds of crap that makes up who we are and what we are, and I’m sure that has something to do with my (trajectory),” Stilson said.
He was also influenced by what he saw on TV.
“There was a series called “The Scarecrow” on Walt Disney, and one of the main characters wore these really neat English riding boots. That’s the clearest (moment) I can point out,” he said.
As Stilson grew, so did his fascination with boots. He was later inspired by The Beatles’ tight-fitting version of the Chelsea, the Beatle boot. Around that time, operations at the orphanage began to change. He said it was run more like a juvenile detention center. He was a well-behaved boy who was being treated like a delinquent. A forced high-and-tight haircut pushed him and a friend, who was born without an ear, to escape the abusive environment.
“(Plastic surgeons) were doing work on it,” Stilson said. “This was before you could grow an ear on a mouse.”
Stilson said the ear covered in scar tissue was always leaking a bright pink fluid, so the kid wanted to grow his hair long to conceal it.
“They held us down and shaved our heads,” Stilson said. “They were going to do that again, and that was the straw, so we took off.”
They took hitchhiked across the country to San Francisco. It was sometime in the early-’70s, when Stilson was only 15 years old, and he quickly realized he was in no position to be on his own. The orphanage was unwilling to accept him back, but little did he know, a caseworker who was fond of Stilson was already in the process of trying to become his foster mother. Her name was Blair Nare.
“She was strong and beautiful,” Stilson said.
Nare was a politically active anti-war activist, and was concerned her political views would interfere with fostering him, so she hadn’t told Stilson her plans. Upon his return, he moved in with her, and that’s when his life took off. His foster father had a leather shop where he sold fringe vests, belts, and other “hippie stuff.”
“I liked working with leather, but there were so many shops that made the same thing,” Stilson said.
What he really wanted to do was learn to make shoes. At 19, he moved to Massachusetts to go to shoe-making school. He had to live in Boston for a year first so he could receive in-state tuition, but once the year was over, it was too late. The school closed due to lack of interest. He was the only person who applied. He found out what books the courses used and started teaching himself. He got an apprenticeship at a repair store through a government program available to orphans, where he finally had access to machines.
“I’d make uppers at home and bring them to work. During my lunch hour, I’d put soles and heels on them,” Stilson said.
His foster father encouraged him to apply at a custom hiking boot store, Peter Limmer and Sons, in Intervale, New Hampshire. Uncertain of his chances, Stilson told the owners he would work there for free for a month to show them his capabilities and dedication.
“You’re standing at the (work) bench and looking out at the Saco River and Mount Washington – The customers honored those people. It’s so romantic to me,” Stilson said.
Limmer boots were built to withstand the rough terrain of the Appalachian mountains and rugged treks around the globe.
“That is one of the things that I so admired about the Limmers – they made their boots to last. They made them so they can be repaired, and they made them at a price that people can afford. They didn’t try to become millionaires,” Stilson said.
Peter Limmer and Sons is still around, and has an 18-month backlog for the one style of custom-fit boots they make. Pete Limmer, the current owner, is the fifth generation of boot-makers in the family. They both started working in the business around the same time. Stilson said he learned everything he knows at L&S, but Limmer said he already had a lot of skills when he came to the shop.
“He switched over from shoes to boots. The difference is the muscle it takes to pull the leather over a foot model,” Limmer said. “The long and the short of it is anybody can (make boots), but not everybody sticks around. It’s a matter of love.”
Limmer said Stilson was addicted to making boots.
After about six years, Stilson’s wife wanted to go to school, so Stilson, then 23 years old, left Limmer and Sons.
For three years, Stilson owned his own store, Stilson’s Boot Limited, with a couple of business partners. The Limmers sold him the machinery for the shop and also sent customers his way. A black and white photograph of the storefront is on the refrigerator at his studio.
He eventually followed his second wife out to Durango 20 years ago. Stilson said there were boot shops all over town, but he couldn’t get a job. He applied at a cowboy outfitter, The Bounty Hunter, in Telluride, where the owner challenged him to make a leather coat in a day.
“I went to Walmart and got a singer pattern and retrofitted it to his drawing and made a coat,” Stilson said. “Richie Havens bought that coat.”
He went from leather coats to leather gloves, but longed to be working on shoes again. That’s when he got the job at Landis.
Stilson said he is often frustrated with work. He rarely gets to repair the custom European shoes that get him excited
“I do not feel good when someone brings in a pair of crappy shoes that they bought for very little money, and they want me to fix it for the price of work that I put in that is worth more than the shoe,” Stilson said.
Many people are unaware of the low quality of the shoes that they’ve purchased, to boot.
“They’re Harley Davidson boots; how can they be crappy?” Stilson said. “The problem that I see is its friggin’ capitalism. (Companies) just went the American way: Crank ’em out. Sell a lot of them.”
People often balk at the idea of affording a $400 or $500 pair of shoes.
But they can afford six pairs of $200 boots, so it’s really a choice,” Stilson said.
It’s a sort of epic irony for Stilson, a man who loves repairing quality shoes in a world that is fooled by fashionable junk.
“This is a microcosm of what is happening in our society,” Kapustka. “I don’t think he is literally the last shoemaker, but it’s in that vein.”
Kapustka has had Stilson repair multiple pairs of boots covered in dog teeth gnaw marks. Stilson taught him that if you don’t take care of step one – buying quality, repairable goods – then all the steps that follow are pointless. People do the right thing by wanting to repair their shoes, but they missed the first step.
But what happens when people like Mervin Stilson go away, Kapustka said. We can take care of step one, but then who is there to take care of step two?