Big red boot marks longtime Dubuque western wear store

DUBUQUE, Iowa (AP) — While the exterior of Longhorn Saddlery and Western Wear bears several hints of the Western treasures to be found inside, there’s one iconic figure that stands out above the rest: A large, red boot.

The larger-than-life shoe towers above the store’s parking lot, easily catching the attention of drivers passing by on Dubuque’s Dodge Street. It dwarfs the plastic horse mounted on another nearby sign, and many customers comment on it when they stop in.

“That was actually a big part of Grandma’s marketing strategy,” third-generation owner Travis Bettcher told the Telegraph Herald. “She’d always tell people, ‘Just look for the big, red boot.’”

The store has offered area shoppers a taste of classic western charm for more than 50 years since Travis’s grandparents Roy and Jeanette Bettcher opened the business in 1968 on Main Street. The store moved to its current location along Dodge in 1973 for additional space and since has expanded twice.

The store sells an assortment of western wear, from blue jeans and boots to jewelry and cowboy hats. It also is a one-stop shop for saddles and tack, including equipment such as halters, bridles, reins and bits.

Store Supervisor and Marketing Manager Taylor Dolan said the selection tends to surprise visitors, many of whom might have a preconceived notion of what a “western” store entails. While the store gets a good number of customers from the local horse-riding community, she said the store has lots of merchandise for people without horses, too.

“It’s not just cowboys and cowgirls,” said Dolan, Bettcher’s fiancee. “We get a lot of people stopping in and saying things like, ‘Oh, I’ve never been here before. I didn’t know you guys carried all this stuff.’ Word of mouth is great for that, but we’ve also been reaching out and broadcasting that we sell stuff for everybody.”

Longhorn Saddlery and Western Wear is one of the only stores of its size and kind in about a 100-mile radius, said sales lead Colton Kisting. While there’s quite a few visitors from the tri-state area, the store also gets customers from as far away as Missouri, Nebraska and South Dakota.

First-time customer Sarah Rector visited the store recently with a group of friends and family from the Madison, Wis., area. Standing in an aisle full of cowboy hats, she joked the store was “the best you can get outside of Texas.”

“We don’t really have anything like this by us,” Rector said. “We’re in a larger metro area, so there’s less farming and less agriculture, so for us to get to a store like this, we have to go farther away or to a different state.”

Right next to the boot section, the store can do custom hat shaping. Next to a life-sized plastic horse named Bobby a few aisles over, the store also offers various saddle and leather repairs.

Kisting said he believes it is those extras that help put the store over the top when it comes to meeting customers’ needs.

“I think we’ve kind of built up a community over the years,” said Kisting, who is the store’s only full-time employee aside from Bettcher and Dolan. “… And I feel like a lot of it is just those small things like striking up a conversation (or) offering those saddle repairs.”

Dolan said that feeling of community and solid base of repeat customers helped the store end 2022 on a high note, with steady increases in in-person traffic and social media engagement. The store faced supply-chain issues and price increases like most businesses over the past year, though she said the store has done what it could to minimize impacts on customers.

She also attributed at least a portion of last year’s success to the popularity of certain movies and shows such as Paramount Network’s neo-Western drama “Yellowstone.” The show follows the roller-coaster lives of a modern-day ranching family in Montana living on the largest contiguous ranch in the country.

“The show’s been a big hit,” she said. “It’s bringing in a lot of people who want to live that lifestyle, so that’s been awesome for us.”

Bettcher said popular Western-style media always has driven some degree of traffic, although he attributed most of the business’s success to the family-oriented feel of the store that comes from three generations of ownership.

For years, the store was staffed solely by family members until demand got high enough to require additional workers. The store now has seven employees aside from Bettcher and Dolan, as well as two office dogs, Cinnamon and Beau, who help with office morale.

“It gives us an edge because we carry that family aspect through everything that we do. We treat our employees like family, just like we do everyone who walks in the door,” he said. “… It was always my dad’s goal to take it to 50 years, and I would love to see it to at least 75.”

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