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Nicknamed “Cowboy Capital of the World,” the small, spirited town of Bandera is located off the beaten path in the Hill Country of Texas. The town of less than 1,000 people is a former staging area for the Great Western Cattle Trail. It is home to rodeo champions, dude and guest ranches, longhorn cattle drives down Main Street, and the upscale Western boutique, Gunslinger of Bandera.
The store is the brainchild of Melissa Benge, a native of Garland, Texas, situated near Dallas about 300 miles north of Bandera. Benge discovered Bandera’s charming community on a weekend trip to nearby Fredericksburg. “I’m a dime store cowgirl,” she laughingly admits. “I don’t really ride horses, I just look the part.” But it was enough for folks in Fredericksburg to encourage her to head over to the Cowtown to check it out.
“I drove into Bandera and it was so fun!” remembers Benge. “It’s a little bitty town, and there were cowboys on all the corners, a guy playing guitar and singing songs, and a longhorn on another corner.” Benge says this is when gunshots rang out. “Being from Dallas, I thought I should take cover!”
Turns out, there was no reason to be alarmed—it was just a popular downtown reenactment of a cowboy shootout. “They were jumping all around, having this little gunfight. And I said this is just too fun; I just might have to live here!”
Six months later, Benge bought a home in Bandera, and soon after that, she purchased a nearly 5,000-square foot storefront in downtown that would eventually house Gunslinger. It’s the memory of that cowboy shootout that inspired the store’s moniker.
“It was a big risk! People said I was crazy for wanting to build this store out in the middle of nowhere,” recalls Benge. “I think I started with just six styles of cowboy boots because I wasn’t even sure if this would work.” But on opening day her fears were silenced when 250 people showed up to welcome Gunslinger to Bandera.
“I really wanted to help bring even more visitors to Bandera,” says Benge, whose enthusiasm for the tiny town is contagious. “So many people own little businesses and had done a great job of being a cool little honky-tonk bar, a neat little restaurant, or a wonderful ‘working cowboy’ Western store,” commends Benge. “I wanted to take it up a notch and do more fashion—I got to take it out of the box a little bit.”
Benge is no stranger to the retail industry, having owned stores in Chicago, Dallas and Rowlett (Texas) after graduating with a degree in fashion. “Gunslinger is my baby—it’s like having a child with a lot of personality!” Benge adds that when it came to creating the look and feel of the store, she knew exactly what she wanted.
“I had this vision of a really fun Western store—I have a creative, driving passion about retail because I love the experience,” says Benge. “I love walking into the store and feeling that fun environment. It’s my pallet; I look at it as a blank canvas—let’s decorate, let’s fill it, and let’s go and take great care of our customers.”
With Gunslinger, Benge has hit the nail on the head. People visit from all over the world to experience the enjoyable and engaging environment, decked out with reclaimed wood accents, a cap gun collection and other vintage props. “I didn’t want it to just be a gal’s boutique—I definitely wanted it to appeal to both men and women, and have it be a very fun, visual experience.” She adds, “That’s where my artistry comes in, because I used it as my canvas and layered it with all these interesting things. I like to touch on a memory—I love pulling the quaintness of memories into your buying experience.”
At Gunslinger, there’s a little something for everyone—including boots, jewelry, accessories, and gift items from top Western designers like Tasha Polizzi, Double D Ranch, Love Tokens, Marrika Nakk, Johnny Was, Ryan Michael, and Old Gringo. Benge has even worked with some designers—including Pat Dahnke and Juan Antonio—to create custom looks available exclusively at Gunslinger.
In addition to in-store shopping (1107 Cypress Street, Bandera, Texas), you can buy from Gunslinger online at GunslingerOfBandera.com or call the store (830-796-7803) for a “text-style” personal shopping experience with Benge. You text a picture of yourself, and she selects items she thinks will work well for you. If you agree, the items ship right to you—often the same day.
Keep an eye out for Benge’s latest adventure, coming soon. It’s another retail shop called Wild Grace, which will be in Benge’s old stomping grounds of downtown Garland. “I’m going back to my roots,” says Benge. “Wild Grace is about living bold in my faith. We all need a lot of wild grace!”