A BELOVED BOOT KICKS OFF

Jeff Stultz is having a rough winter. As boot manager of the Army Navy Store in normally laid-back Anchorage, Alaska, Stultz has been cursed, harassed and harangued--and the season hasn't even hit its stride. The source of the rancor? A shortage of Sorel boots, a brand so revered in snowy climates that the name has spawned an almost cultlike following. Last summer Kaufman Footwear, the Canadian company that made the pricey rubber boots with a removable felt liner, declared bankruptcy, stopped production and left retailers like Stultz to deal with the fallout. "I'm going to be really glad," says Stultz, "when this winter is over."

Surviving snow-boot makers, on the other hand, wish it would go on forever. After a string of mild winters, this year's nasty weather has revived a sector that saw sales plummet 50 percent over the past three years. But with the bankruptcy, Kaufman missed the party. Retailers from Aspen to Ann Arbor are complaining about their depleted stocks and choleric clientele.

How could a company with such a devoted following go belly up? Tom Kaufman, fourth-generation president of the family-run company, says he was too slow diversifying into warm-weather apparel. And in recent years Kaufman had been losing ground to companies like Columbia Sportswear, which had introduced lighter, sportier boots that it could produce inexpensively overseas. But there's hope for diehard Sorel fanatics. In September Columbia snapped up the Sorel name for $8 million--which analysts are saying is a bargain-basement price--and plans to relaunch the brand next fall. For Jeff Stultz, next winter can't come soon enough.

A BELOVED BOOT KICKS OFF | News