Sebastopol cobbler's boots are made for gawking
Yvonne Michie Horn, Friday, May 23, 2003
Special to The Chronicle
Those stopping by Apple Cobbler on Sebastopol's Main Street should not expect to have new heels put on their loafers. Inside the unpretentious shop, Michael Anthony Carnacchi creates custom-made, Western-style boots for those with the wherewithal to pamper their elite feet.
A Michael Anthony, as he calls his label, is more suitable for those punching the pedals on a private jet than those accustomed to kicking cow pies.
"Unfortunately," he said, "most cowboys can't afford my boots."
A basic pair costs $2,000 or more; non-basic can stretch upward past $7,500, depending on the skin and intricacy of the design.
"My clients have money and are willing to pay for quality," he said. "They don't want second-grade anything."
Fred Furth, a San Francisco attorney and owner of Healdsburg's Chalk Hill winery, recently ordered his 20th pair. Furth is willing to wait the months it takes, sometimes more than a year, to have them delivered.
"Michael is an artist," he said. "You don't ask him to hurry anymore than you'd ask Van Gogh to get the painting ready by next Tuesday."
There is no assembly line production for a Carnacchi boot -- not even an assistant -- so he averages only 36 pair a year. Even a pair of standard calfskin with little or no decoration takes about 50 hours to make.
"I figure that with materials and overhead I make about $11 an hour," Carnacchi said, "but this is a dying art that I love and want to preserve."
In 1987, Carnacchi roared out of his hometown, Detroit, on his Harley, his ponytail swinging in the wind. He was en route to fulfilling his dream of becoming a working artist somewhere in the West. "Twenty-eight days later, I hit Tomales Bay and realized that I was not only out of land," he recalled, "but also out of money."
In need of a job, he went to Schuman Brothers Shoe & Boot Repair in Cotati, where he discovered that there was a lot of artistry in careful repair and he liked the work.
A quest to learn more took him to venerable Marelli Bros. Shoe Repair, a San Rafael staple for nearly 80 years. David Marelli, grandson of the original owner, remembers Carnacchi well. "We're pretty assembly line here," he said, "but his artistry showed through."
Marelli laughed as he recalled Carnacchi as a free spirit, always friendly, always smiling, "and always with a cause, such as remaining rankled over the requirement that motorcyclists had to wear helmets.
"He was a wonderful worker, eager to learn, riding in on his motorcycle from the town of Sonoma to work here even when our business was down and we could only give him half days. For some reason he really wanted to enter and be good at the business."
When the Sebastopol shop at 227 N. Main St. became available in 1994, Carnacchi went out on his own. "As I repaired factory boots, I couldn't help but notice deteriorating quality. Figuring that there would always be people willing to pay for the best, I decided to learn how to make them by hand."
To do so, in 1996 he contacted legendary Texas boot maker Jack Reed to see if he would take on a student. He was politely turned down. Carnacchi persisted and was soon en route to Burnet, Texas, on his Harley. He stayed there two weeks and continued to return regularly until Reed's retirement three years ago. "He was and is my mentor," said Carnacchi. "I still turn to him for guidance and his words of wisdom."
"Boots take top-notch precision work," Reed said from his home in Burnet. "Everything has to be exact. And you have to be an artist, too, to be able to visualize what the customer envisions and make it all work together. Michael could do all that."
Four years ago, Carnacchi, 41, was able to stop taking in worn saddle shoes and women's pumps in need of new heels and become a full-time boot maker. Robb Report magazine, in its June 2002 issue, named him as the "Best of the Best" western boot maker in the United States. His clients include the rich, the powerful and the famous -- and a few lessers who understand the lifetime value of a well-made boot. Eighty-five percent are men.
One female client was told by her physician that if she wanted to keep walking, she would have to give up her four-inch heels. She refused and turned to Carnacchi. Today she owns several Michael Anthony creations, the latest a black crocodile number, and her feet never felt better.
As far as Furth is concerned, comfort is the primary reason he keeps returning to Carnacchi. "To wear Michael's boots is like wearing nicely fitted leather slippers," he said, noting that he has worn nothing but boots for at least 30 years. "His are the finest of the finest. I'm a difficult person. I'm precise and like to be meticulously prepared. When I step into the courtroom, I need to feel good, and that extends down to the Michael Anthony boots I'm wearing."
One pair ordered by Furth is Carnacchi's greatest challenge to date. Modeled after the classic, brown-trimmed, white spectator shoe, the boot uses brown kangaroo and Italian white leathers. The only thing missing is the laces.
Furth wears them with his white suits, which he dons after May 1.
How much did Furth fork over for them? That is something Carnacchi refuses to divulge. "My customers know that they can count on me to safeguard their privacy," he said, "and that includes who they are as well as how much they paid."
To safeguard that privacy, in many cases those ordering from Carnacchi never set foot in his shop. He goes to them.
Exactly 372 steps go into the creation of a Michael Anthony, from meticulous measurements to the trial fitting. Clients have dozens of decisions to make. What skins to use, what color -- 60 colors of crocodile are available, for example. Heel height, shaft height, toe style -- pointed, rounded, squared. Plus any desired ornamentation.
Carnacchi's most time-consuming pair of boots involved an inlay of the Egyptian crocodile goddess Sobek, and were made not at the request of a customer but to be used as a featured photograph in "The Art of the Boot" book by Tyler Beard. He made them to fit himself, putting in 250 hours to do so.
While Carnacchi prefers using French or German calf leather, as well as ostrich and alligator skin, for most of his boots, he is prepared to make use of any hide that is not an endangered species. Exotic materials, such as kangaroo, saltwater crocodile and python are generally illegal to sell in the United States without government authorization. Carnacchi is licensed with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to sell these skins. The licensing allows him to select skins directly from the tanners, rather than rely on suppliers.
Custom shoes are a recent addition to the Michael Anthony repertoire. They, too, begin at a basic price of $2,000.
"A hundred years ago," Carnacchi said, "most people wore handmade foot gear.
Today, perhaps one in 100,000 does. When I go to Pac Bell Park, I look around and think, 'I'm probably the only one here wearing custom-made boots.'
"I like putting wearable art on my feet, and so do my clients. No matter that most of it is hidden away under our pant legs. It's like wearing fine- quality underwear. You do it for yourself."
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