John Wayne's birthday is celebration for western wear store

The father-son owners of Carol's Western Wear in Glen Burnie are so attached to the legend of John Wayne that they know his boot size and preference for plain brown with a squared-off toe.

They will mark the 105th birthday of America's well-known cowboy Saturday with a storewide sale that includes everything from alarm clocks and mugs with the Duke's image to several nearly 6-foot tall cut-outs of the actor in full-Western regalia.

Bob Chance, who opened the store on Ritchie Highway 50 years ago, now operates it with son, who goes by the same name. The two have for decades made a ritual out of the star's birthday and see it as a way to honor the American icon with some 250 films to his credit.

"We all have a little cowboy in us," said Bob Chance, the son.

More than 30 years after Wayne's death in 1979, his name remains familiar and his image still sells.

"Whenever there is an all-time movie star list, he is in the top 10," said Bill Atkins, owner of the John Wayne Museum in Bowie. He was an extra in "Flying Leathernecks," filmed in 1950 at Camp Pendelton, Calif. and never misses the annual John Wayne Film Festival in California.

The Chances' shop stocks the John Wayne American Legend clock with the cowboy's profile against Monument Valley, a landmark backdrop for many Westerns. Mugs with the Duke's familiar movie lines, like "Don't say it's a fine morning or I'll shoot you," the younger Chance's favorite, sell well. There are cigar boxes, water bottles and flasks.

Throughout the showroom, life-sized cardboard cut-outs of the country's quintessential cowboy — on horseback, in a Stetson and boots, with a lasso and rifle — jog most shoppers' memories. Even the under-30's crowd buys for their parents and grandparents, the owners said.

"A lot of this is man cave stuff, but it's really popular," said the son.

The 5,000-square-foot store, which the elder Chance founded in 1962 — in the building where his parents had operated an upholstery business — trades on Americana.

A sign out front promises "We are the genuine article." A sculpted chestnut horse rests atop the double-doors. Rustic boards surround display windows, one with a poster of Will Rogers, another with a flag and "Buy American" logo beside "Authorized Stetson Dealer." A silhouette of Dale Evans is nestled among well worn, scuffed cowboy boots and children's playthings. Whimsical carvings of a Native American and a cowboy stand tall in the foyer.

Bob Chance, the elder, said he fell in love with the American West during a U.S. Air Force stint in Cheyenne, Wyo., more than 50 years ago. He also remembers a childhood filled with Saturday matinees, when he became a lifelong fan of both the actor and the man.

"There are many other cowboy actors from that time, but John Wayne is the one who stuck," he said. "I think John Wayne was teaching us what the West was all about. There was a code and a way of life."

His favorite movie? "I love them all," he said, spilling off titles. His son is more discerning. He chose "The Searchers," which, many believe was the actor's favorite, too. Wayne named his youngest son after that film's hero, Ethan Edwards.

"He stays angry through most of the story, but he comes around in the end," said the younger Chance.

The scent of leather permeates the store with an entire wall lined floor to ceiling with boots. About 150 styles are available for men, women and children in a price range of $100 to $1,200 or more for the custom-made styles.

"They can be real works of art with all kinds of fancy stitching," said the son.

Asked the most popular style, both Chances agree on the pair with the unpolished, distressed look. Asked their personal favorite and both will show off their pointed-toe boots of ostrich, a soft and durable material. Wayne wore a size 8.5 and had relatively small feet for his 6-foot-4 frame.

"I don't own shoes," said the senior Chance. "I just went to my only granddaughter's wedding in boots. They are probably the most comfortable footwear available. One of our customers is a surgeon, who literally stands for hours in the operating room, wearing boots."

His son added, "Once you wear a good pair of boots, you will never go back to shoes."

A boot purchase takes time, patience and a knowledgeable fitter. Customers settle into cozy mesquite-wood chairs, which cradle the posterior so comfortably, that the Chances have been talked into selling a few.

"They are tractor seats," said the elder Chance. "One size fits all."

If they are not in stock, a custom-fitted pair could take as long as three months to deliver.

"They are not turned out on a machine, like a pair of flip-flops," he said.

At first, the elder Chance stocked saddles, bridles and tack, but as Anne Arundel grew in people, the horse population declined. He found his niche with high-quality western wear, dressing customers from head to toe, in cowboy hats, western shirts, silver belt buckles and jeans made of sturdy denim, not the chi-chi city slicker kind, said the father.

His son grew up in the store, in western wear and still remembers his earliest years, napping inside the displays.

Everyone dresses the part at the store in jeans, western shirts, boots and in many cases, hats. Ed Gray, a salesman for 11 years, never arrives hatless.

"I wear a hat all day, seven days a week," he said.

He sported a tight-woven straw, his preferred summer cover. The feminine version makes for great beach, concert or gardening attire and also comes in pink. In winter, Gray might go for sturdy felt, or maybe a beaver or rabbit hat. With proper care, those can last a lifetime, the Chances said.

The business expanded to a second location in Laurel about 20 years ago and now employs 15. Many customers are regulars, known by name to the owners. A few maintain mini-John Wayne shrines at home and eagerly purchase the latest memorabilia.

"For a few years, I sold auto parts to people in a hurry for a muffler or tail pipe," said the father. "Here it has always been a much slower pace. It's like everybody is on vacation and time stands still."

They usually work a seven-day week, but will mark Memorial Day by closing up shop.

"It is not a day to save 50 percent," said the younger Chance. "We are closed to pay homage to our military

The business has thrived even when the economy has not. At 76, the father has no intention of retiring and his 50-year-old son knows the secret that keeps Carol's Western Wear profitable.

He pointed to his father and said, "He shows up every day."


Recommended on Baltimore Sun