When bootmaker Mark Cato moved back to Fort Worth from East Texas in 2009, he lost a piece of leather needed to finish a pair of custom boots. He called one boot shop and leather supplier after another looking for a replacement, but no one had the sort of leather he needed.
Finally, his search led him to Charlie Toole, a former law enforcement officer and private investigator-turned-bootmaker and owner of Texas Boot and Saddlery, a tiny shop on Fort Worth’s far west side. A gregarious man, Charlie took an almost instant liking to the young bootmaker, and in short order, the two fell into an easy friendship.
At 60-something and old enough to be Mark’s father, Charlie was an entertaining raconteur who favored big windys over strictly truthful tales. Sometimes cantankerous and short-tempered, he was a lover of pretty women, sleek horses and all things Western. He was also a man struggling with out-of-control diabetes, a devastating disease that ravages the organs and can maim, blind and kill.
Charlie handed Mark the needed leather, a gift — but only the first. “He wouldn’t let me pay him,” Mark remembers.
It is here that Mark says this story begins.
But truth be told, the seed of this narrative took root when Mark was only a child learning the leather craft at his great-grandfather’s workbench in Merkel. The sharp smell of the tanned hides, the muted drum of the mallet against the stamp, the ancient song of the chisel was a soothing lullaby that freed his imagination. Soon he couldn’t dream of life without the solace of the art.
What began as a boy’s pastime and a young man’s hobby became much more. Mark tried his hand at other sorts of business: the oil patch, ranch work, retail sales. But by the time he lost that scrap of leather — a piece he distinctly remembers packing before the move — he was an accomplished craftsman looking for a place to invest his life and his skill.
He was also a steadfast believer in everyday blessings, those small miracles easily missed or discounted as insignificant or accidental. But for Mark Cato, now 47, there are no chance meetings. Coincidence is an illusion; all, he says, is a gift from the creator, a blessing waiting to be recognized. Because he imagines that people are put in his path for a reason, Mark began believing that meeting Charlie Toole was far from happenstance, and he wasn’t surprised when the men established an easy camaraderie.
Karl Mott, 50, who lost his sight to diabetes when he was 20 and makes leather belts, wallets and purses at Texas Boot and Saddlery, remembers those early visits. “After I met Mark the first time, I told Charlie we needed to get him in this shop,” says Karl. Charlie agreed, and so the two men determined not to lose track of this talented new friend.
“I liked the shop from the beginning....I liked Karl and Jesus, the saddlemaker,” says Mark. But it was his relationship with Charlie that would be the game changer. “Charlie and I formed a fast friendship, one much stronger than I realized,” he says.
Mark began work with a Grapevine bootmaker, but his new friends kept in touch. “Charlie or Karl would call me periodically just to check and see how I was getting along. They’d always invite me to come by and visit,” says Mark.
And then one day Mark met another man who handed him a bit of life-changing information. GrapeFest, a big annual festival, was in full swing when Mark had a chance to meet celebrated teacher Dave McKinney, author of an authoritative bootmaking manual. He couldn’t wait to shake McKinney’s hand.
“I learned so much from his book....It was my bible when I was learning to make boots,” says Mark.
As the men chatted, McKinney let it drop that his old friend, Charlie Toole, was sick, had just lost his bootmaker and had to turn out a pair of boots quickly. Mark was surprised. Charlie hadn’t mentioned this need to him, but when Mark returned to the shop, the phone was ringing. It was Charlie asking for some help.
“I went right over and I’ve never left,” says Mark.
But leaving became a temptation that grew as Charlie became even sicker, finally losing one leg and then the other to diabetes. After the amputations, there were still more surgeries to correct many other problems. The illness took a toll on Charlie — and on the shop. Once Charlie had dreamed of opening a place in the Fort Worth Stockyards, but that opportunity had slipped away, and Mark realized that just hanging on would be a challenge.
Charlie’s onetime employer, Ronnie Blasingame, a former law enforcement officer-turned-private investigator, worried about his longtime friend. He dropped by the shop at least once a week to check on Charlie. He spread the word, too, encouraging everyone he knew to use the shop for new boots or belts, or shoe or even purse repair.
“Charlie just sat there in a wheelchair....Sometimes he didn’t even talk nice to people....It was obvious to me that Mark knew what to do. Charlie just owned the place,” says Blasingame. “Mark is awesome. He’s a good person. He knows how to talk to people. I admire the guy because he’s honest and whatever he tells you he’ll do, that’s what he does. I told Charlie, ‘You let Mark talk to everyone. He’s the guy who can keep your business going.’ He made it successful, too, and, when Charlie got bad and was in the hospital, Mark was taking every penny to him every day.”
Mark had never owned or operated a business before, but it was soon clear that the shop was not the success that Blasingame imagined. Mark paid the vendors and the other employees and took only part of his own wages — and sometimes none at all. But no matter what he did, it wasn’t enough. The business was sinking.
“I was focused on getting Charlie healthy again,” says Mark. “Finally I had to go to the hospital and tell him, ‘Charlie, we have to lock the doors. We can’t continue.’ It was hard. Charlie wanted the business to continue. He was worried about...the employees. He said, ‘What will happen to Karl? Where will Jesus go?’”
An unexpected gift
Mark didn’t see a way out, but he kept the doors open, working without pay, hustling to find some kind of solid footing.
One day, Blasingame visited Charlie. “He was laying up there in a hospital bed with both legs cut off, dying — and not making any plans....We talked and I said, ‘What are you doing? If you’re worried about Mark, do something...make some plans.’”
Without consulting Mark, Charlie had papers drawn up leaving the shop to the young bootmaker. Charlie was very ill and in the hospital when he greeted Mark with the announcement: “Well you’re working for yourself now...I’m leaving the shop to you,” he said.
Mark was flabbergasted and unsure of the road ahead. “I wouldn’t sign the papers...not for some time,” he says. “But after a month or so, I agreed to try and keep the shop going,” he says.
With all the paperwork complete, Charlie died in September of 2011. And Mark became the owner of Texas Boot and Saddlery. “But I didn’t know anything about business,” says Mark. “I found out that I was responsible for paying all the back taxes....It was a nightmare, a lot of debt....That’s done now, but for many nights and weeks that gift didn’t seem like a blessing at all.
“But sometimes you don’t recognize God’s blessings. They can be easy to miss...”