Published in the 2014-2015 Tucson GuestBook.
Highlighting the majestic landscapes, eclectic fashion scene and engaging people, John Gilbert finds no day in Tucson to be the same. The owner of J Gilbert Footwear, a custom cowboy boot retailer, has two shops located in the city he now calls home, as well as one a piece in Scottsdale, Denver and Seattle.
Visiting his local shops each day, with his dog Lily by his side, Gilbert has immersed himself in Tucson’s community and culture throughout the past decade. His passion for Tucson life extends through his company’s hand in supporting local charities, from the Boys & Girls Clubs and Big Brothers Big Sisters, to the Community Foundation for Southern Arizona and Humane Society of Southern Arizona—where he found Lily at a pet-adoption event he helped to organize three years ago. Though cowboy boots stole his heart long before Tucson, Gilbert has found his city match for the soul in the quaint community.
Where did your interest in boots begin?
When I was about 12 years old, I got my first pair of Acme roughout cowboy boots. Where I grew up I was the only kid wearing boots at the time, but I really loved everything about them. That’s also when Western movies were really popular, but I never thought of myself as a cowboy; I just liked wearing boots. I wore them until they had holes in the bottom.
With stores in cities like Scottsdale, Seattle and Denver, why Tucson?
I came to Tucson in 2002 thinking it would just be a nice little town to come to in the winter to get out of the Seattle rain once in a while. After about a week of looking around, I knew I wanted to live here. I can’t live anywhere I don’t have a store; it was a perfect fit. Tucson is a very special place—with the foothills, desert and beautiful sunsets, there is just no place like it anywhere. When people visit Tucson they really feel like they are experiencing something special.
What is different about J Gilbert Footwear compared to other boot boutiques?
Our selection. We design most of our own styles and work with only the finest handmade boot makers. Also, our expert sales staff is the best. The most important thing when buying a good boot is the fit and our staff is not only expert, we guarantee the fit of every boot we sell.
How “custom” do your boots come at J Gilbert?
If you can image it, we can pretty much make it. We help people design their very own one-of-a-kind boot. For collectors to a first-time boot buyer, it’s a thrill to see your new boots when they come in and you know that boot is the only one on the planet and it’s yours.
What draws you to Tucson’s fashion scene?
The fashion scene in Tucson is so eclectic. It’s a mixture of so many cultures—from Mexico to Milan—especially during the winter when we have people from all over the word flocking here for the perfect, warm weather. In February, during the gem show, I like to go and people watch; the fashion is real and it’s from all over the world .… It’s where I see more fashion and get ideas for new looks.
What excites you most about your newest location in Palomino Plaza?
Palomino Plaza was where I wanted to open my first store, but there were no spaces for lease. It’s one of the oldest plazas in Tucson, like Casas Adobes. I love having stores in these beautiful, historic plazas; they have such a different feel when you’re walking around in them. It’s a totally different experience than shopping in a mall.
What do you love most about living in Tucson?
That’s an easy question—the people. I have met the most interesting people since moving here 10 years ago. I have met people from all over the world; they come for some of the finest resorts and spas right here in Tucson. We get people from every part of the country and Canada, Mexico, etc.
Tell me about your favorite pair of boots.
I probably have had close to 60 or 70 pairs of boots over the years. I have two favorite pairs: my first pair, the Acme roughouts I got when I was 12 years old, and my last pair, which is a pair of Lucchese Baby Buffalo Ropers. I’m sure that will change with the next pair of boots I get.