Cowboy Candy Store
Solano's Boot & Western Wear
For 60 years, this family-owned business has outfitted cowboys from near and far.
Story & Photography by Tim Keller
Shortly after her store’s Monday-morning opening, a couple enters and Sandy Solano-Langan greets them by name. Other customers are already shopping among rows of tall-top boots, a roomful of hats and another room of jeans and Western shirts. The rich scent of leather wafts from beyond the shirts where alternating sounds of mallets and machines draw a visitor toward Sandy’s dad, a master leather smith practicing his craft in this building since 1956.
Solano’s Boot & Western Wear is an unlikely crossroads of the West. One block from the old Wells Fargo freight office at the town’s train depot, Solano’s anchors the historic downtown business district of Raton, New Mexico, population 6600. On the one hand, Raton is isolated—the nearest commercial airports are at Denver, Albuquerque, and Amarillo, each 230 miles away. On the other hand, Raton sits beside the well-traveled crossroads of Interstate 25 and U.S. 87 that connects Texas and Colorado at the foot of Raton Pass.
Family ranches around Raton are starting their sixth generation while big outfits like the CS, the UU Bar, the TO and Vermejo Park maintain huge swaths of grazing land. Thousands of visitors annually flock to the nearby Philmont Scout Ranch and the NRA Whittington Center. Sitting right on the historic Santa Fe Trail, family-owned Solano’s has grown over 60 years from one room to five and added a website that’s brought new customers from around the world, making Solano’s a crossroads of happy customers from near and far.
Andy and Fabie Solano couldn’t have imagined this when they moved from their tiny village of Ojo de Chapelle in 1956 to open his new shoe repair shop. After Air Force service during the Korean War, Andy used the GI Bill to apprentice himself to a shoe repairman that wanted to sell his Raton business. Solano Shoe Repair was born, and a few of Andy’s customers go back almost that far. One points to Andy in his shop today and says, “They don’t make ‘em like that anymore.”
When the last of their three kids started school in 1968, Fabie got bored at home and opened her own business next door to Andy, selling boots and shoes. To visit Andy, she had to walk outside and go in his door, though they kept just the single sign for both stores.
It took their first-born, Ralph Solano, to transform the two small stores into today’s sprawling Solano’s Boot & Western Wear. Off to college at UNM in Albuquerque, Ralph immersed himself in the Western-wear trade while working at New Mexico’s only Sheplers store. His parents welcomed him home in 1976 to remake their business. Ralph expanded their space through the big corner building, tearing down walls and adding product lines. He mounted a big sign along Main Street with the store’s new name.
Andy’s leather shop moved to the fifth room where his regulars could reach him directly from the street while others could discover him as they walked through the store, drawn by the smell of leather.
Ralph built Solano’s into a bustling regional attraction that’s served ranches throughout northeastern New Mexico and into neighboring Colorado, Oklahoma, and Texas. Raton’s townspeople and a growing number of tourists shop at Solano’s, too. When Ralph’s son Dreyson became a software engineer, he convinced his dad that the Web was the future. Drey launched the store’s website in 2003 and now maintains it from his home in Blair, Nebraska.
Ralph managed Solano’s for 28 years until his tragic death in 2004 prompted his sister Sandy to jettison her Denver corporate career and move home to manage the store. She joined her parents Andy and Fabie in working their six eight-hour days; entirely family-run, Solano’s is closed only on Sundays. Sandy’s daughter Tiffany is now a sales clerk, joining Drey as the company’s third generation. Until they added a part-time sales clerk last year, the only employee not a Solano has been Sandi Simons, and she’s been there 27 years. Solano’s turnover rate is low.
Raton’s 2014 Woman of the Year, Sandy is in her 12th year managing the family business, proud to show off a long line of products that includes wild rags, belt buckles, and clothing from Wrangler and Levi alongside four other brands of jeans. She custom shapes Stetson, Resistol and other hats. “We carry every style of hat,” she says, “including modern, traditional, Old West and retro. We even have top hats, fedoras and derbies.”
Lining the store’s upper walls is a fascinating “hat cemetery” displaying 370 well-used hats complete with dirt, sweat and the names of those that wore them, including Mary Davis of the CS ranch and bull-riding champions Tuff and Roach Hedeman.
More than anything else, though, Solano’s sells boots. “We design boots that Hondo makes for us, stamped with our brand on the inside,” Sandy says, “along with boots by Justin, Tony Lama, Ariat and Nocona, plus work boots from Wolverine and Red Wing. Our biggest sellers are the tall-top cowboy boots.”
The website brings customers from around the world. “One man in Korea saw our boots on the Internet and custom-ordered a pair. Now he’s bought seven,” Sandy says. “My dad has people all over, including a man in Maryland, that send their boots or shoes for refurbishing, new soles and heels every year or two.”
Andy says, “With a good boot, I can resole it four or five times, and I do same day service.”
Sandy adds, “I can’t tell you how many cowboys walk around here barefoot while he’s refurbishing their boots.”
Solano’s carries leather goods including moccasins, belts, wallets and ladies’ purses. “I make custom gun belts, scabbards and holsters,” Andy says. “I put zippers in jackets and boots, and I repair purses, zippers, and shoes.”
As they prepare to celebrate their store’s 60th anniversary, Andy and Fabie have no intention of retiring. “He’d go crazy if he had to stay home,” Fabie says, “and I don’t want to stay home by myself.”
“I’d miss my customers,” Andy says. “I like the people. I’m hoping to work ten more years. I’ll stay as long as my customers want me and keep coming.”
On that basis, he and Fabie will be at Solano’s a long time because customers keep coming to downtown Raton’s busiest business, the thriving Western crossroads along the old Santa Fe Trail.
Solano’s Boot & Western Wear, 101 S. 2nd St., Raton NM 87740, (575) 445-2632 or (888) 898-6813, solanoswesternwear.com, open 9 to 5 Monday through Saturday.
Tim Keller is a New Mexico writer and photographer that posts his work at timkellerarts.com. Send comments on this story to firstname.lastname@example.org.