Don Thompson lies awake some nights pondering how to fix an item dropped off by a hoping-for-a-miracle customer.
Most repair jobs at Valley Boot & Saddle require less rumination, according to Jenny Thompson. She said her husband can resurrect leather goods, ranging from battered boots to timeworn saddles to unstrung baseball gloves, that she believes are decades past saving.
His wheels spin quickly, she said.
“He can look at something and know how to fix it,” Jenny said. “It’s pretty amazing.”
Don Thompson, who leans toward laconic, shrugged.
He attributes his resourcefulness to the long celebrated formula that posits necessity begets invention.
“I spent a good many years cowboying and roping in locations where there was nobody to fix anything that broke,” he said. “You had to fix it yourself or at least patch it back together until you could find someone to fix it.”
On a recent morning, three separate customers arrived, in short order, one after another, at Valley Boot & Saddle in Kalispell. They asked whether the Thompsons could: repair or replace the zipper on a cross-country ski boot; transfer a belt buckle with sentimental value to a belt not designed for that type of buckle; and, fix the zipper at the back of a pair of women’s boots.
The answers were: “Yes” and “Yes” and “Yes.”
Don, who is 59, and Jenny, 58, opened Valley Boot & Saddle in February 2017 in the strip-mall space on North Meridian Road formerly occupied by Lane’s Boot & Shoe Repair.
Don said he has done leatherwork “for probably more than 20 years” — stamping, tooling, carving. He learned how to repair and build custom saddles from regional craftsman Earl Twist and from Dale Lane.
He learned boot and shoe repairs from Lane while working for him for about seven years at Lane’s Boot & Shoe in the same location occupied by Valley Boot & Saddle. Lane’s shop is based now in Polson.
Lane said he sold the Kalispell business to the Thompsons in 2017 because he knew it would be in capable hands.
“Don was a stellar, dedicated worker,” he said. “You couldn’t have asked for any better employee.”
He said Don practiced his leather carving nearly every day after work.
Lane said the Kalispell shop had gotten very busy and that some health problems led him to move back to the area where he grew up and open a shop that promised to be more laid back.
Boot and shoe repairs account for about 80 percent of Valley Boot & Saddle’s revenues, with custom leatherwork and saddle work ponying up the other 20 percent, Don said.
He custom crafts and hand tools belts, holsters and gunbelts, chaps, stirrup straps and saddles. He stamps and carves.
Asked whether he considers himself an artist in the arena of this custom leatherwork, Don weighed the question.
“Yes, he is,” she said.
Don said his many hours on horseback inform his saddle building.
“It amazes me that there are saddlemakers out there who don’t ride horses,” he said. “That’s like tying flies without fishing.”
Don said the base price for a custom saddle starts at about $3,000 and goes up from there, based on the tooling and stamping.
“Each one is pretty much built to the customer’s specifications, hence the word ‘custom,’” he said. “The custom work is what I really enjoy. The boots and shoes pay the bills.”
Custom saddles have gone to clients in North Dakota, Wyoming, Texas, Washington and Montana.
Don said some of his custom tack has shown up in episodes of “Yellowstone,” a TV series on the Paramount network that stars Kevin Costner.
Don Thompson was born in Hot Springs but grew up in Libby and in Mountain Home, Idaho. After his parents divorced, his mother married Bill Crismore, a logger who served for a time as a state senator.
Don said he considers Crismore to be his father.
Jenny Sproul Thompson was born and raised in Kalispell. Her father was a rancher and logger and her mother worked at home.
Both Don and Jenny, who have been married about 11 years, have grown children from earlier marriages.
The couple keep horses at home. Don competes in team-roping events. Jenny is a competitive barrel-racer.
The Thompsons said Valley Boot & Saddle stays busy because the region now lacks comparable shops.
“I get customers from Libby and Browning,” Don said. “There’s more cowboying these days on the east side [of the Continental Divide].”
Staying busy is good, of course, but Don said the shop sometimes gets too hectic.
“We get pretty hammered. We get overrun. We’d like to find a bigger shop,” he said.
Even though Valley Boot & Saddle endeavors to transform broken into fixed, sometimes it just can’t happen.
“A lot of stuff these days isn’t built to be repaired,” he said. “In the old days, soles were stitched onto boots. These days they’re glued.”
One fixture at the shop is Buck, an aging dachshund.
Another constant is the aroma that frequently elicits positive comments from customers. The potpourri cobbles together leather, shoe polish and glue.
Valley Boot & Saddle’s equipment includes heavy duty Landis International and Cobra machinery. Yet the shop bristles, too, with hand tools.
Don Thompson was asked what characteristics are necessary to succeed in the trade he has taken on.
“I think you’ve just got to enjoy working with your hands. You have to have some patience and a fix-it attitude.”
Reporter Duncan Adams may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 758-4407.
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