From the Roanoke College Magazine, Issue Three, 2012. View the entire Roanoke Magazine online.
To describe Marty Snortum '77 as a renaissance man would not be off the mark.
He studied biology at Roanoke College; pursued a master's degree in photo illustration at Ohio University; taught photography at Virginia Western Community College in Roanoke; has run 48 marathons; has owned two commercial photography studios, his original in El Paso, Texas, and one in Phoenix, Ariz.; opened Rocketbuster Boots, a custom design, handcrafted cowboy boot company; collects vintage trailers; and lives with his wife, Nevena Christi, their 8-year-old son, Trip, three land tortoises and a dog, in a renovated 1939 Pueblo Deco movie theater in west Texas.
Snortum has been extremely successful. Every venture has a long, convoluted, fascinating story. Like how he acquired the boot company, based in El Paso, the cowboy boot capital of North America.
In 1989, Rocketbuster Handmade Custom Boots was born in what can only be described as a "West Texas Deal." Snortum traded a 1953 Cadillac hearse - painted white with a large red cross on it, as it had been used as a rescue vehicle - for a fledgling cowboy boot company consisting of two sewing machines and a dozen cowboy boot lasts. (The lasts are wooden or plastic forms in the shape of the human foot on which the foot area of boots are crafted.)
Snortum spent a month creating his first samples, which he took to New York City, stuffed in an Army surplus duffle bag. He took wholesale orders on all of his original samples. The business took a dramatic turn when fashion designer Nicole Miller, for whom Christi then worked as design director, needed Asian-inspired cowboy boots for Miller's 1994 fall collection.
Rocketbuster was willing to take the challenge. Christi was dispatched to El Paso to oversee boot design and construction. The Snortum-Christi team was born, as was a budding relationship. The two dated cross-country for two years until Christi moved to Texas in 1997 to take the reins of Rocketbuster. Her first directive was to take the company completely custom.
Today, the business produces about 500 custom pairs of boots per year, costing anywhere from $850 to $5,000. The boots - worn by the likes of singer-songwriter Taylor Swift, actress, comedian and talk show host Whoopi Goldberg, actor Tom Cruise, country music duo Brooks & Dunn, and plenty of less famous folks - have one thing in common, regardless of price.
"They are never boring," Snortum says.
Each pair, which takes about 250 hours to complete, has as many as 200 pieces of leather, all intricately placed, glued, stitched and assembled. Work includes hand-measuring each customer, designing and creating patterns, hand-cutting the leather, hand-stitching and hand-welting.
Snortum claims to have the best boot cutter, or "Top Man," in the world - a second-generation builder who is only 29 years old - and the best "Bottom Man, the company's laster, who just turned 64.
"We are one of a handful of companies that still produces a traditional American product in America," Snortum says. "If you buy a cool pair of boots at age 35, you won't wear them out, but you can pass them down. It's important to produce legacy in this modern age of throwaway. No one will ever toss out a pair of Rocketbusters."
Snortum, who opened his first photography studio in El Paso in 1981, is still a busy commercial photographer and produces all of Rocketbuster's advertising. He has traveled throughout Mexico and Europe for clients, shot scores of catalogs, is credited with more than two dozen books and has been published nationally for 30 years.
Snortum says his photography business takes a new direction about every eight to 10 years. "In the past four years, publishing has taken a severe economic hit, and my business is now more niche oriented," he says.
His single biggest challenge was when he sold the Phoenix photography studio in 1989 and purchased the movie theater, repurposing the building into a photography studio, boot company and living space - all at the same time. Today, the theater also houses 18 vintage travel trailers and crazy collections of tikis and ephemera from times gone by. The building was featured on HGTV's "Home, Strange Home" in November.
"We do weird stuff because it's important and fun," Snortum says. In 1998, Snortum and the Rocketbuster gang built the Guinness Book of World Record's "World's Largest Boots" - a whopping size 328D that are 5 feet tall and 8 feet long, heel to heel.
Snortum fondly remembers his years at Roanoke, the "excellent instruction, with small intimate classes that seemed more like family."
"Roanoke didn't educate me for my career, it educated me for my life," he says. "I think people forget that education is the basis or springboard to life, not necessarily exact training for a specific career. I absolutely loved the small size in comparison of the mega universities that churn out thousands of students."
"Roanoke has history and legacy, the same stuff I try to put into my businesses here in west Texas."
As for what's next for Rocketbuster, Snortum wants to create a line of vegan cowboy boots.
That way, "Sir Paul [McCartney] can buy a pair. He can't now, but maybe in 2013," Snortum says.
- Sarah Cox