Most of us probably know someone who’s an overachiever. Of the handful that I know, I can’t say that any of them started their own full-fledged shoe brand during their first year of college. Mark Barbera is that guy. Calling coal country his home, Mark grew up in the small town of Somerset, Pennsylvania as the youngest in a family of successful doctors and lawyers. Look back a few branches in his family tree, however, and you’ll find a master cobbler in the Barbera lineage. That’s his great grandfather, or as Mark affectionately calls him, his Nonno.
Though Mark’s Nonno passed away before he was born, the cobbling gene still made its way through to him. His grandfather would regale him with stories of having to work in his Nonno’s shoe shop everyday after school instead of getting involved in sports or other after school activities. But rather than follow the footsteps of Mark’s Nonno, his grandfather became a lawyer and kept the shoemaking gene dormant for another two generations.
The passion began to resurface Mark’s first year of college at LaSalle University in Philadelphia. Mark noticed many of his campus peers in chelsea boots, the slick, elasticated boot currently enjoying a resurgence. And on a search for a pair of his own, Mark couldn’t find exactly what he was looking for. There wasn’t a decently-made, decently-priced chelsea boot on the market. He couldn’t spring the cash for something from Common Projects, but the more affordable renditions weren’t exactly made with longevity in mind.
Mark’s father suggested that the local shoe factory might be able to make a pair for him. After sketching out a few styles, they made their way down to the factory for a meeting with the owner only to realize their minimum order was $10,000, significantly more than a pair of CPs. Still, it didn’t stop him. He tried setting up a pre-order program, but that wasn’t enough to get the ball rolling.
That’s when his sister suggested Kickstarter. Mark gathered what he could from shoveling mulch on his summer landscaping gigs and put it toward funding a video for his Kickstarter campaign. His investment paid off, and his campaign ended up funded over 50% more than his initial goal. That money went to the first order and Mark Albert Boots was born.
The Somerset factory’s been in business since 1948, focusing only on goodyear welted shoes. With over 100 processes involved in the making of a single shoe, there’s almost no room for missteps. The vintage machinery that the workers operate — some of which is over 70 years old — requires skilled craftspeople. It’s a good thing that many of the workers have been with the factory for over 20 years. Some of them have worked at the factory for so long that even their children grow up to also work alongside them.
As for materials, Mark’s shoes use full-grain leather sourced mostly from the U.S., pigskin lining, and butyl leather soles which are leather soles that are heavily oiled, making them pliable and water resistant. All of these components add to their durability and longevity. And once longevity has taken its toll on a pair, you can have the shoes resoled. With those attributes in mind, his boots often cost just around $300.
The local factory’s highpoint of production saw 400,000 pairs of shoes being produced per year. That’s a lot of shoes for Somerset, a town with a population of around 6,000. But that was back in 1996 and it’s been some time since they’ve seen numbers anywhere near that high.
As the coal industry has taken a hit, so has Somerset, and Mark looks to bring jobs back to his hometown. If you dig up enough mulch, you might get a pair of shoes in the process. In Mark’s quest, he’s gotten more than a single pair of shoes. With that same fervor, hopefully he’ll get Somerset back on their feet too.
For more information, go to Mark Albert Boots.