By Jennifer June
Lots of folks come to California with big dreams, a place full of easy money, sunny weather and lucky breaks.
The story we’ve all heard about Michael Anthony goes like this… Michael rides his motorcycle, a Harley, out of Detroit and across the country. He gets Texas bootmaker Mr. Jack Reed to teach him how to make cowboy boots. Michael then opens up a shop outside of San Francisco making boots for millionaires… and it’s a mystery how he got in Tyler Beard’s book, The Art of the Boot, after building boots for only a couple years?
Well, there is a bit more to the story.
True. In 1987, Michael Anthony Carnacchi did ride his Harley out to California. He arrived flat broke. He worked to make ends meet with one odd job after another, including a brief stint at a Tomales Bay oyster farm. He got his “lucky” break, when Schuman Brothers Shoe & Boot Repairin Cotati hired him as an apprentice. Michael swept up and tried to earn his keep, each night sleeping on the floor at the back of the shop, his Harley parked in the front lobby. Joseph Schuman was a master at shoe repair. Michael recounts his mentor’s “invisible half-sole” and has distinct memories of Joseph Schuman really only using one hand to fix a heel on a ladies shoe.
After polishing his repair skills for two years at Schuman Brothers and later at Marelli Brothers Shoe Repair in San Rafael, California, Michael stepped out on his own. In 1994, Michael bought a small Main Street shoe repair shop in Sebastopol, California, a city about 60 miles north of San Francisco. Michael says, “I found I fit right in. There are a lot of characters in Sebastopol.”
It was Beard’s The Cowboy Boot Book that became Michael Anthony’s treasure map. Page 92 told a story about a bootmaker named Jack Reed, who ran a one-man shop in Burnet, Texas. Jack Reed promised he could teach the 372 steps of boot making in “one forty-hour-week crash course.”
Michael called Jack to see if he would teach him bootmaking, but Jack’s answer was “no.” He was done with teaching. Michael was persistent. First, he got Jack to agree to sell him some lemonwood pegs…and before that deal was done Michael got a note from Jack, telling Michael to call again, so they could plan a time for his visit.
Michael could already take a boot apart and put it back to together, but Jack taught him fit, pattern making and boot building. Michael would visit Jack once or sometimes twice a year, usually around the time of the Boot and Saddlemaker Round Up, when Jack ran the show held in Brownwood, Texas.
In 1998, Michael got the call from Tyler Beard. Tyler asked Michael to send a boot to be photographed and possibly featured in his new book The Art of the Boot. Tyler was impressed by what he had heard about Michael’s crocodile boots, and for this book he wanted something truly special. Tyler challenged Michael to make a crocodile boot with inlay…something that would really showcase the art of bootmaking.
Michael created a tall exotic boot with a stovepipe top, inlayed on the back with artwork inspired by hieroglyphics of Sobek, the Egyptian crocodile god. The gold, black and tawny inlay was surrounded with the textured tiles of the crocodile skin, giving the whole boot an ancient look. Michael carefully matched the tiles of the hide between both boots, creating exceptional balance and symmetry. This remarkable pair of boots earned Michael a spot in Tyler’s book – and with it, a place amongst America’s best bootmakers.
When asked how his bootmaking has changed over the years, Michael replies with a chuckle, “I’m better and slower.”
It is easy to look at Michael’s boots and label him a perfectionist, but he’s not that.
Michael isn’t as interested in making a “perfect” Western boot as he is committed to the craftsmanship, focus and knowledge he gains with each pair. Each one is a bit of a journey. Researching exceptional leather and perfecting his own bootmaking techniques, always going one step further…right past the place where others stop and shake their heads.
But, it is through this intense focus that Michael feels most connected to the craft of bootmaking. Michael says that he thinks of Jack Reed with every pair he builds. He makes sure all the leather he uses is ethically sourced and tanned. He stops for a moment of gratitude to the animal whose hide is stretched across his bench. When he is inseaming, Michael says he feels a connection to bootmakers going back hundreds of years. There is mindfulness in Michael’s bootmaking that is unlike any other.
Over the years, there have been a few of Michael’s special projects that still stand out. An exacting recreation of Lincoln’s boots (the pair removed from Lincoln’s feet the night of his death), demanded hours of historical research and at least two cross country trips. (See sidebar for details.) And, there was a cowboy boot Michael made years ago, out of actual football leather complete with white lacing. There is no telling what Michael Anthony will be inspired to tackle next.
These “special projects” challenge Michael as a craftsman and sometimes have lasting results. Since recreating Abe Lincoln’s boots, Michael builds his Western boots differently… thinning the counters and insoles to be strong, but noticeably lighter and more flexible.
It was Tyler’s book that first brought him fame, but nowadays most of Michael’s customers are through word of mouth…a lucky few just walk in. Custom Western Bootmaker is printed on the shop’s glass window, but Michael is open only “by appointment or by happenstance;” so every time a visitor swings open the door, they bring a special sense of destiny. Three out of every four of Michael’s customers want their boot tops simply made of calf or kangaroo. No inlay. No fancy topstitching. No hieroglyphics or even simple stars. Michael works hard to find the very best leather and there seems to be agreement that it is often a shame to cover it up. The quality leather speaks for itself, with simple elegance and a good fit.
And yes…there is another good reason Michael takes longer to make a boot these days.
In 2016, Michael Anthony was elected to the Sebastopol City Council. A surprise to some (including Michael) because he did not accept political endorsements or run campaign ads. He did not print a single poster or flyer. Michael attributes the win to his Main Street address. “People know me. They know I care about this community. I never served in the military; this is my public service. I think those Lincoln boots must have inspired me.”
He also is happy to do repair work; no longer limiting his repair work to his own boots as he once did, now with just about anything that comes in the door. Repair work “takes a different set of tools and skills. It’s like being bilingual.” It also gives Michael another way to connect to his community – to be of service. Even if it means Michael stops his bootmaking to fix a mild scuff on the toe of a chunky leather clog. The repair means he gets to meet someone new or visit with someone he hasn’t seen in a while…all by appointment or happenstance.
Michael Anthony, Bootmaker
227 North Main Street
Sebastopol, CA 95472
Some California “magic” does happen in Michael Anthony’s shop
In 2015, a team from Pixar Animation Studios paid Michael a visit. They needed Michael’s help for their upcoming movie Coco; an animated film centered on the Riveras, a family of shoemakers from the small fictional town of Santa Cecilia.
The animators spent more than two hours in Michael’s shop, asking him questions and filming him as he worked. All this was to remain top secret until the movie’s release in November 2017.
Pixar took some creative license, but if you look carefully you can see bits and pieces of Michael’s boot shop included in the Oscar winning film…the glue pot, his stool, the lasting pliers hanging on the wall and the shelf above the finisher.
The Lincoln Boot
When President Barack Obama was inaugurated in 2009, Michael Anthony saw history in the making and was moved by the enormous challenges that faced our new President.
Michael wrote a letter offering to make President Obama a special pair of boots. Not a pair of cowboy boots, like those worn by Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush. Rather, a pair of boots identical to those worn by one of Barack Obama’s role models, Abraham Lincoln; a pair of tall top boots with square toes. A pair of historic boots that would command attention anew whenever Obama walked into a room. Michael hoped the boots would help inspire Obama with the courage he would need throughout a difficult presidency. These boots would be both a tribute and a talisman.
Michael sent his letter and waited.
Then he got a call…from the National Park Service, the caretakers of Lincoln’s boots.
Michael was granted special permission to examine Lincoln’s boots in person. Michael took with him all the tools of a proper detective….notebooks, a measuring tape, magnifying glass, flashlight and a telescoping mirror. He examined the boots in person at the archives in Washington D.C., studying the subtle tool marks still visible after 165 years. He compared leather textures and colors, inside and out. He counted stitches…explaining each of his observations to the museum curators whom had gathered around him.
As an experienced bootmaker and repairman, he could see things that others could not. The size of Lincoln’s boot was most likely a 12.5, not a 14 as the museum records showed. With no toe box in the boot, the wear patterns took on special meaning. Michael had an easier time imagining the shape of Lincoln’s foot and could almost hear his footsteps. Without a toe box, Michael grew to recognize the creases found in the boots’ toes within a number of archival photos – and even the statue of Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial.
When Michael returned to Sebastopol, he felt his job was just beginning. Michael expanded his search and narrowed his focus. He tracked down even more of the boots’ history through photos and personal journals, even obtaining a copy of the original checks that Lincoln wrote to pay for the boots.
Michael set out to make a modern-day, but exact copy of Lincoln’s boots.
Michael’s quest required the help of other skilled craftspeople. A furniture maker crafted crimp boards to Michael’s specifications. A weaver matched the color and thread of the pull straps to create an exact and perfect reproduction. A talented book restorer helped Michael with the necessary leather embossing techniques.
Michael built the last using measurements obtained from his D.C. visit and shoe shop records belonging to a private collector. While building the boots, Michael referred to his photographs, his own careful notes and then “listened” to what the materials had to tell him. His knowledge of bootmaking was of good use, but not necessarily all of his well-worn habits. The Lincoln boots pushed Michael to try new things, to experiment, to look both backwards and forwards.
The finished Lincoln Boots are now tucked away in a private collection, remarkable in their detail, but never meant to be worn…other than by President Lincoln himself. Ask Michael about them and his eyes quickly brighten as he is eager to tell you everything he’s learned.
Here’s hoping Michael writes a book someday. For now, a detailed account of tools, techniques and materials used on the Lincoln boots is available on Michael’s website: http://michaelanthonybootmaker.com/boots/#lincolnboots