Wild West Wedding

Marcel Krueger meets Berlin’s one and only cowboy…

cowboy portrait
Robert Stöwhase, son of Wedding’s original cowboy Manfred Stöwhase. Portrait by Zoe Spawton

These days, Berlin is both at and in the centre of Europe. Whether tourists from England or starving artists from Sweden, more and more people are coming to the German capital from all cardinal points in search of imagined artistic freedom and cheap German beer. It’s easy to forget that just 25 years ago, Berlin used to be the furthest eastern outgrowth of the “capitalist” west; firmly embedded in Cold War enemy territory, it straddled a very concrete ‘iron curtain’ that kept everyone and everything eastern out of reach and out of touch.

Berlin neighbourhoods like the district of Wedding were virtually part of a frontier town, defending Marlboro, cheeseburgers, and freedom of speech with the help of the occupying powers from France, the UK and, most importantly, the USA. Hence a whole generation of Berlin kids grew up in the post-war period with the image of bubble-gum-chewing G.I.’s driving past in olive-green jeeps, Bill Halley’s “Rock Around the Clock” on the radio and Cowboys and Indians on TV and in pulp magazines.

One of those kids was Manfred Stöwhase. Born in 1939, he grew up a huge fan of American TV cowboys like Tom Mix and Roy Rogers. Circus artists used to camp in caravans near where he and his family lived when they were not on tour, so Manfred was, from an early age, able to combine his love for TV cowboys with a group of friends who could teach him sharp-shooting, lassoing and knife-throwing.

It was during this time that the stage was set for his “Western” life: at 16, he adopted the stage persona of ‘Roy Dunn’ and started traveling around West Germany with the ‘Star Parade’ fun fair as a sharp shooter and knife thrower, channeling Western dreams of young scallywags with shaved heads and leather shorts growing up in the ‘Wirtschaftswunder’, the economic miracle of recovery in West Germany.

After a few years on the road, he returned home to Berlin, where he settled down and started to work as a sheet metal worker. He never fully abandoned his role as Roy however, joining one of the many city’s Western clubs with a bunch of other German ‘cowboys’ and setting up a shooting range in his basement to continue training (and to annoy the neighbours). At a time when Berlin expected a Soviet invasion anytime, no one really seems to have cared about gunfire coming from a nearby basement.

cowboy boots
Photo by Zoe Spawton

In 1965, Roy decided to cross the Atlantic and emigrated to the U.S,, but his ambition of becoming a roaming cowboy on horseback never materialised. Having to make ends meet with poorly paid jobs, New York was the furthest West he made it. Working as a painter and construction worker, he became disillusioned with the American way of life and the vain pursuit of happiness on the dirty streets of the Big Apple; he again returned to Berlin, where he opened a launderette in Wedding.

But still he kept his Western lifestyle going: an imaginary cowboy life in the concrete surroundings of Wedding was still better than no cowboy life at all. He joined another Western club and soon realized how difficult it was to get his hands on proper attire: cowboy boots, hats, leather shirts. One thing led to another and in 1976, Roy decided to open a small Western store directly opposite the launderette. He called it ‘Lucky Star’, decorated it with slabs of dark wood and murals depicting cacti and the prairie. Sometime later, he moved the store to bigger premises at the nearby Kameruner Strasse.

The shop is still there today. With its white-washed walls, the dark wood panelling framing the display windows, and the painting of a large buffalo skull and the words “Roy Dunn’s Lucky Star” decorating the entrance to the parking lot, it looks like a dilapidated New Mexico ranch, forever waiting for an Indian raid or a shoot-out that is never going to happen. It’s certainly an anomaly among the surrounding casinos, döner shops and betting offices of the neighbourhood, but despite its odd appearance, the ‘Western Store’ – as it’s called today – has become a largely approved feature of the neighbourhood.

“We’ve been open for 37 years now!” laughs Robert Stöwhase, Roy’s son, who took over the store from his parents in 2003. “First we had our American friends coming to Wedding to buy their clothes and boots and then we started branching out. But now our clientele is pretty diverse. We have bikers, Western clubs, and even fashion models buying their boots here.”

The interior even more impressive than the outside: long rows of cowboy boots in all colours and forms, with snake heads sitting on the pointy tip, rainbow-coloured leather flames creeping up the sides, or winged crosses decorating the face of the boot. “My father also used to run a Western saloon out of the annexe, but now we’ve moved the hats in there – we sell Stetson and all the other big brands as well.”

cowboy stuff
Photo by Zoe Spawton

German celebrities like actress Heike Makatsch or TV host Thomas Gottschalk (who used to run Germany’s biggest game show Wetten dass?) also order their boots at Robert’s store. And then there are all the other, smaller items on offer: leather tongs, belt buckles, Confederate felt caps and other Western memorabilia.

“There are a few other shops around town that sell boots, but we are pretty much the only proper Western store in Berlin,” says Rob. “Being a monopolist also has its advantages. We now also have an online shop, and in a strange turn of events, we have started selling boots back to the States. Our pointy boots are quite popular with the gay scene in the Bay Area. Seemingly they prefer point boots over round ones, and as these are really hard to come by in the USA they have started ordering from us.”

There’s another west/east twist to the story of Roy Dunn and his Western Store. After the wall came down in 1989 and took the GDR with it, the first time that Western clubs from both West and East Berlin met was in the saloon of the store. And guess what? After a few whiskeys they got along pretty well, and no one was shot.

And Roy Dunn a.k.a. Manfred Stöwhase even finally made it to the States for a proper trek across the prairie after retirement. He left Wedding a while back and now lives in Bavaria with his wife and his horses on a farm, but his little frontier outpost in the West is still trading with the local tribes…

Roy Dunn’s Western Store, Kameruner Str.3 13351 Berlin (Wedding)

Next in Meet The LocalsQ/A: Marga van den Meydenberg »