Melissa and Jim Benge just knew that the Cowboy Capital of the World was the perfect place to open their dream store.
Five years ago, Melissa Benge was happily running her eclectic boutique Melissa’s in the North Texas town of Rowlett selling costume jewelry, much of which she designed herself, and cleverly displaying it in vintage frames or weathered cabinets among glass doorknobs and other antique treasures. Then one day over lobster and scallops at The Oar House in nearby Rockwall, everything changed.
“I fell in love! Jim [Benge] and I were set up by a mutual friend five years ago, and we had so much in common that it’s almost been like a math equation,” she says. “We both loved Texas music, honky-tonks, and driving the back roads.” The couple got married just six months later. Melissa sold her boutique, and she and Jim started exploring small-town Texas on the weekends.
When the two arrived in Bandera, about 40 miles northwest of San Antonio on the Medina River, they just knew. “We looked at each other and said, ‘This is it. This is where we want our second home to be.’ ” And, it turned out, another store. A junker by nature, Melissa was shopping one day at the Wind River Trading Co. in downtown Bandera, looking for old cap guns and vintage Western items to add to her collection. One of the store employees who had waited on her many times suggested that since she shopped there so much she should just buy the place.
So she did.
Then Melissa and Jim really went Western in the little town (population 957) that bills itself as the Cowboy Capital of the World. Jim, a contractor who also operates out of Dallas, helped gut the almost 5,000-square-foot space that would become Gunslinger. Melissa communicated her vision for the store to Jim. He hung her cap-gun collection from the ceiling, used guns as handles on the doors, and attached the front end of a 1948 red Ford truck to one wall. While Jim set up shop, Melissa went shopping. A retail veteran — Gunslinger is her seventh store — Melissa selected men’s and women’s Western apparel, hats, belts, boots, and jewelry, along with art, photographs, and furniture, such as cowhide and leather-tooled couches. “It’s a lifestyle store,” she says.
Melissa says she’s always been a boots-and-jeans girl and loves stocking Gunslinger with some of the favorites that she’s worn for years: Old Gringo and Back at the Ranch boots; Double D Ranch jackets; Marrika Näkk’s peasant tops; Tasha Polizzi’s heavily embroidered linen blouses; Montana Dreamwear’s deerskin jackets; and Vintage Collection’s layered tulle skirts; along with local designer Robin Brown’s Magnolia Pearl line of romantic tops. She also carries Richard Schmidt’s handmade sterling jewelry; a huge inventory of turquoise, conchos, and bolos by many artists, including Jerry Faires of Santa Fe, New Mexico; and pawn jewelry. She’s thinking of putting her eclectic aesthetic on a T-shirt: “Artsy Backroads Betty Hippie Chick Dimestore Cowgirl with a Bohemian Twist!” “In fact,” she says, “I’ve always been tagged a gypsy.”
For the guys, Gunslinger carries leather bracelets made by local artist and hat maker Michael Malone, Ryan Michael’s heavily topstitched shirts, Rockmount Ranch Wear’s classic Western shirts, Scully’s total cowboy snaps-and-yokes look, and Stubbs’ classic, elegant shirts. The store also offers men’s fashions from 7 Diamonds and Apricottree, “for that crossover look,” Melissa says. “I have a lot of musicians that shop in my store, so I carry shirts with interesting detail, but with an urban edge. It’s Western, but more hip and trendy.”
With such a large space to fill, Melissa’s always on the lookout for Gunslinger-worthy items. “I’m striving to buy Texan and look for people who produce here in America, the mom and pops,” she says. “One of my favorite things to do is go to local art fairs.”
And listen to Texas music. Melissa carries a stock of Texas-centric tunes in Gunslinger and also books bands (Ed Burleson, Darryl Lee Rush) when she’s not writing out receipts for sales and offering personalized services to her customers. In December of ’09, she opened another retail store, Cowboy Caliente, right across the street from Gunslinger. Cowboy Caliente (www.cowboycaliente.com) focuses on art, cookbooks, handmade jewelry, salsas, and home accessories. With two stores going great guns in Bandera, Melissa’s now concentrating on designing her new dream home on their property on the outskirts of town.
For Melissa and Jim, it’s the perfect place to call home. “We have smaller, locally owned businesses and a couple of fabulous restaurants that we’ve grown to love. By seeing the same familiar faces all the time, it’s like you’re at one community event all the time.” Thanks to Gunslinger and some natural cowboy sociability, it’s a community that Melissa and Jim have become an integral part of. “That’s what we really love about Bandera — the people.”
FYI: Gunslinger, 1107 Cypress St., Bandera, Texas, 830.796.7803, www.gunslinger-ofbandera.com.