Thursday, February 23, 2012

My Leather Studio

Since 1984 my studio here in the Arts Building has been my leather workshop.
Studio #507 has been my work space and also my living arrangements for 13 years.
After my second marriage ended in 1999, I took up residency here to nurse my troubled heart and to ease the financial burden on my pocketbook. Towards the end of the 1990's, the fair circuit was slowing down.
Looking back over the years I see a trend that happens every ten years or so. Business at a location is good and then it tapers off. The past 64+ years has taught me to live within my income and not to take my health for granted.

I've learned that a good leather worker has to have an in-depth knowledge of machines. Here is some pictures and descriptions of the machines that I use on a daily basis.

Roller Foot Sewing Machine for Flat Goods

Compound Feed Sewing Machine Used to Combine Heavy Pieces

Straight Edge Folder to Turn Edges Automatically

Large Embossing Machine Produces Heat and Pressure

Some of the Many Handmade Embossing Dies

Smaller Embosser Which Enables Finer Detail

Model-C Clicker Used To Cut Leather With Cutting Dies
Power Hammer Used To Flatten Seams

Cylinder Arm Sewing Machine-Compound Feed

Compound Feed Post Sewing Machine.

Skiving Machine Used To Thin Leather Edges

Kick Press Used To Set Rivets or Snaps

Hand Turned Strap Folding Machine

I'm still very much enamored with being a leather worker and have enjoyed every year spent perfecting my techniques. In the late 1990's with urging from my daughter Ann Marie I bought my first computer. I have to honestly say that at first I was terrified of the prospect of learning about computing. As we all know, the learning curve can be steep when it comes to computing by I stuck with it and became very proficient. Photography has always been a hobby and I took many a pictures with my 35MM film camera. With the advent of the digital age and my knowledge of computers my hobby became a driving force of reasons to learn as much as I could about computers. Early on when I chose a computer platform I was advised to choose an Apple product. That advice was invaluable and I'm sure it saved me from many frustrating moments my Window's brethren endure. And thanks to the typing program Mavis Beacon I still am a hunt and peck typer.

The iconic building my leather studio is in is called The Arts Building. A woman named Joan Julien bought this old vacant manufacturing building in 1982-83. With much effort and forethought, she transferred this building into a vibrant home to many artists and craftsman. I relocated here after leaving my home studio in Glendale. I remember that this space had no windows of any kind but Joan put in a window for me. Here is a view from my window and I must say I never get tired of looking out this window. Between the view of the train tracks and the skyline to the east has given me many reflective moments. If you look in the lower right hand corner you can see my white trailer that I use to carry my leather goods in to the various shows I participate in.

This View Looks Out My Studio Window Towards The Southeast - 2012
The Arts Building has not only given many artist and craftsman a place to create but thanks to many individual tenants here who organized our Studio Art Crawls. Since this building was home to so many creative people, an idea was floated to have an open house to sell our wares. From 1985 through 2010 the building opened it's doors to customers who flocked to our studios to purchase and observe where we created our various goods. The building was home to many a potter, painter, sculptures, leather workers and glass artists. A woman who worked for me at The Leather Shop was one of the first persons to rent a space at this building. Her name is Ilze Heider and she has since left the building and relocated to a lovely studio on the Milwaukee River in Grafton, Wisconsin. Ilze was a driving force for the Leather Shop she was equally dynamic at developing the Studio Art Crawl. Along with Ilze some of you might know of the artist Don Nedobeck. His whimsical animal drawings are in many homes and offices throughout the USA. When Don had his artist space here in the Arts Building he would entertain the crowd during the Studio Art Crawls by playing his clarinet in his dixieland styled band. The Studio Art Crawl was very unique and received local and international news coverage. 

During one of the art crawls I was out of my studio and my daughter Ann Marie was in charge of sales. When I returned she told me that she was sure that the basketball player Larry Bird had just left my studio. I quickly went down the hall to seek him out and only then did I find out that our very tall mayor, John Norquist had just been mistaken for Larry Bird. We all had a good chuckle with that.

Over the years the Studio Art Crawl was a successful and well attended event but in 2010 the event ended. More and more vacant buildings in the area were being renovated into condos or apartments and filled with tenants. Parking was becoming a premium, sales were slowing down and the energy it took to put on the Art Crawl was diminishing. It had a great 25 year run!

Around 1999-2000, the original owner of the Arts Building, Joan Julien sold the building to a young man named Tim Olson. He kept the original arts/crafts concept of the building and allowed all to remain in the building. At first our fear was that this unique building would be converted to condos or apartments. This was not to happen. Tim was in need of an onsite building manager and I was selected for the job. With my computer and photograph skills recently improved, I eventually became a full time employee of his for a number of years. At first I was only working 10-20 hours a week for him but as his holdings grew so did my hours of involvement with his business. I became very proficient with sales and marketing his properties. From brochures to advanced postings on Craig's List, I was his go to guy. I pioneered using YouTube to illustrate our available apartments to prospective tenants who not only saw great pictures but videos too. This was a winning concept that served his company for many years. With the downturn in banking industry and the economy in general, Tim like so many others lost a substantial amount of his holdings. My hours were trimmed back when he had to close his office. Last year in December, 2011 the bank foreclosed on the Arts Building. The new owner is an investment group from California called the CRE Group. I'm still the onsite manager of the building but it isn't clear if the new owners will continue the tradition started by Joan Julien so many years ago. I still do some sales and marketing for Tim and of course I still am doing what I love, crafting leather goods.

This May, I will be turning 65. Instead of retiring, I am focused on continuing to work while I still have my good health. Two broken marriages have taken a toll on me financially and the downturn of the leather industry in general has put pressure on me to continue as best as I can. When I first started in this love affair of leather working, I couldn't imagine the sorry state the leather industry is in today. With a vast amount of the industry gone not only from Wisconsin but from the entire USA, this industry is on it's last leg. In the news you hear that manufacturing is key to the success of America's economic growth but the pressure from abroad is fierce. The consuming public is fixated with their own economic troubles and the trickle down of available money is thin for spending it on handmade leather goods. Add the additional pressure that the organizers of the art/craft fairs put on us exhibitors I have a very clouded future.

With all the years of experience and the investment in material and machines, I have an advantage over anyone who would try to kick start a leather business in 2012. My daughter, Ann Marie has developed a website for me and we have looked at other ways to reach the buying public besides the art/craft fair circuit. Over the years, I have ridden many waves of success by following the popular business trends.

I look forward to many more years of being in love with crafting leather.

Click on This for A Short Video of Me

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Arts Building and the Push Carts

Being independent was great and being successful was even better. The money I was making at the Push Cart Program was enough for me to relocate my business from my home to a downtown location in Walker's Point. It is an old warehouse type building which was converted into spaces and were rented out to many of us local artists and crafters. I'm still in this building today.

One leather item I  started making for the Grand Avenue Push Cart was a small zippered pouch with an adjustable nylon strap. My customers told me this was an item they were looking for as they could easily adjust the strap and also conceal the small pouch under their coats. The pouch measures 6.25 inches wide and 5. inches deep and they sold very well. Ballerina pink was a very popular color and I still make and sell many of them to this day. On the inventory sheet, their number was 9 and I still call them #9's. Much shorter then calling them a 6.25 X 5 inch zippered leather pouch with an adjustable nylon strap. You think?

The Number 9's as They Look Today
Another attention to detail and a technique that increased my sales for checkbook covers, wallets and business card cases was putting free gold foil initials on these flat goods. My good friend, Dick Ivens, made this wooden cabinet and set of drawers to hold the lead type used in this process. The machine sits at the top of the cabinet and has a heat element that warms the type to 180 degrees fahrenheit. A thin gold foil was placed between the heated type and the flat leather item. A small lever brought the type in contact with the foil and leather. Customers would line up to purchase my handcrafted leather and have their initials permanently adhered. Win - Win.

Actual Handmade Wooden Cabinet Used at Grand Avenue and the Initialing Machine at Top
The Small Drawers Under the Machine Held the Lead Type.

Cabinet made by Dick Ivens

My glory days at Grand Avenue faded in the mid 1980's and I then switched to the push carts at Mayfair Mall. As long as business was good I put up with managers of the malls who hen pecked at every aspect of the business. They were concerned with how the cart looked, how much money they could make from you and even how my employees who worked the carts appeared to the public. After many years of allowing the malls to pick fly shit out of black pepper with boxing gloves on I took a another bold step and left the push cart business.

Here I Am In Front of My Push Cart at Grand Avenue - 1984

Not only was the push cart business on the rocks, so was my marriage that ended in 1987. Having visited Florida on many occasions, I took my mid-life crisis and leather goods and went all the way to Key West.
There I set up a small store and lived for the better part of a year. Rent on my studio back in Milwaukee was paid for along with my rents in Key West. I wasn't saving anything for retirement but I was having a good time and couldn't care less. Beside selling my leather goods at the small store I had in an alley that was called Pirate's Alley, I also sold them at the sunset celebration on Mallory Dock. There was a topless bar in the Pirate's Alley called the Pirate's Den and I worked as the doorman there on many occasions.
Shiver me timbers!

After a year of being away from Milwaukee I returned and dusted off the cobwebs on my studio and the machines and started cranking out leather goods again. Having learned so many manufacturing techniques at Western Leather, I was capable of making a substantial amount of quality leather goods. Turning my eye towards the art/craft fair market I dove into this new avenue of selling my products. Tupper Ware and pop up canopies made the fair circuit more viable then it ever was. If rain came the Tupper kept the goods on the ground dry and the canopies overhead finished the job off. Investments were made in trailers to haul the display and trailers to the fairs. Displays were designed, signage was made and a whole new venue was born.

Even though I was trying to stay healthy with exercising, doing aerobics and eating well, I became ill with what the doctors diagnosed as heart disease. After three angioplast's, they wanted to cut me open like a cheap suitcase and operate but I was able to regain my health through a better diet, losing weight and more exercise and hold off the surgeons scalpel. During this period in my life, I remarried and divorced a few years later.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Rocking Out on Rock Place

My wife Pamela must have thought I was nuts to leave this good paying job to strike out on my own again but then again, she never had much interest in my first love of being a leather worker. We had moved from my bachelor pad on the east side to a cozy home in the suburb of Glendale. In the one car attached garage I set up my clicker machine and stored my leather. No room for the cars so we packed them in the driveway. Above the garage was a room equal to the size of the garage. Here I was again, happy to be on my own doing the craft I loved.

Milwaukee Journal - 1982

This article above appeared in the Milwaukee Journal shortly after I began selling my handmade items again but this time I was at the new Grand Avenue in the push cart program on the sky bridge over second street. At first I was only going to be at Grand Avenue for a couple of weeks but after experiencing some of the best sales I ever had, I decided to stay on for many more years. Frank Zappa's daughter Moon Unit said it best in her song Valley Girl. "Gag with me with a spoon".

Monday, February 20, 2012

High On A Hill Was Western Leather

On a hill overlooking the western valley that Commerce Street ran through was Western Leather Products Corporation. It was a large century old firm that was founded by the Pfister & Vogel Tannery in the early 1900's. There is an old saying in the leather industry that goes like this: "One's profits lay on the cutting room floor". Every piece of the animal is used to create a profit and P&V knew they had to watch their bottom line so WLPC was formed to use whatever offal that hit their cutting room floor. Hides were trimmed and sold to the customer by a price that was measured in square feet. A certain amount of money was paid for every square foot and the measurement was made down to the quarter of a square foot. The trimmed pieces that could not be measured or used by the tannery were sent over to WLPC where they took these small pieces and layered them together to make heels, heel counters or toecaps for shoes. This was a basic form of recycling all the parts of the animal. Eventually WLPC added more products to their line of goods and one mainstay was the leather welt used in shoe manufacturing. Over the years they also added an industrial sewing part of their operation in which they made many items for the private sector and also for the U.S. Military.

It was January of 1979 when I became the designer for Western Leather Products Corporation. Leaving The Leather Shop behind was not very emotional for me at the time. I was looking forward to expanding my knowledge of leather crafting and I was happy that they picked me for this job. I felt complimented that my self-taught skills were valued. Getting The Leather Shop moved in a timely matter was another thing. The winter of 1978-79 was to say the least, BRUTUL. Starting the last few weekends in December 1978 it seemed to snow very hard with copious amounts of snow and then get bitter cold. This pattern of warm wet snow followed by an arctic blast repeated itself for six to seven weeks in a row. My plan was to move all my equipment to a garage I procured nearby but each weekend I tried to move the weather was so bad I couldn't move anything. By the end of January 1979, the roads in Milwaukee was so choked with frozen snow piled high everywhere, the National Guard of Wisconsin was brought in to help clear the streets. Was this some type of omen from above?

The very last few days of January 1979, I was finally able to move the items from my old shop thanks to some help from some friends. I was ready for the next chapter of my leather career to be written.

When I joined Western Leather, the industrial department was a shell of what it was at onetime. One of the reasons they hired me was to breath some life back into this department. WLPC had made a fortune on a wide variety of items over their existence but these items were no longer relevant. Many of us can remember how transistor radios were all the rage back in the mid-1900's and WLPC made virtually all the leather cases these radios were encased in. This type of construction was called "box stitching" and was so called because the edges of the leather were put together at a right angle to each other and stitched in place. The cases they made for the little transistor radios fit them like a little box. As you can imagine, over the years the popularity of the transistor radio declined and so did Western's business. Other items they made were small luggage pieces, men's toilet kits, specialty cases for walkie talkie type devices and even some holsters for guns. By the time I joined WLPC, not much was left in real production but all the tools and tricks of the trade were there for me to learn.

I was like a kid in a candy store with all these fantastic machines and tools at my disposal. There was a foreman who ran the floor so my time was spent on learning the machines/tools and developing new products. Early on it was good timing when the huge company Parker Pen had me design a simple pen case for one of their signature lines. The first order from them was small but as we continued making them our annual production exceeded one million units per year. Parker Pen paid us close to $1.00  per pen case. The industrial department was very busy and more important I was learning skills that I never had.

We Sold Over One Million of These Pen Cases To Parker Pen

These skills not only included designing but how to cost analyze an item, write a work flow that the sewing/manufacturing room could follow and which machines would be used. The retired man who ran the room before me was a very skilled craftsman. His name is Bill Vogellsburg and he was a master leather worker and a very skilled machinist. Bill V. would be called in on occasion to assist me with setting up machines or tools needed to make certain new products. I quickly found out that being a designer and a leather craftsman also had to be complimented by being a good machinist. There was so many tools that were used in manufacturing and from Bill Vogellsburg I received a good working knowledge on how to make these tools. This was an opportunity I would never have had at The Leather Shop. As draconian as Western Leather could be at times, I was in nirvana.

Back in the early 1980's, every bill from either the electric company or phone company and many other companies came with printed advertisements stuffed into the envelopes. A large mail order company, Golden Press Shoppers Service, had me design a small handbag. Here is the brochure:

This Advertising Brochure Was Used To Sell A Leather Purse I designed for Western Leather - 1980

Working at WLPC was not the happy go lucky style that I enjoyed for many years on Brady Street. I was in a salary position but was required to conform to their business model. The work day began and ended by a time clock that was punched by many in the building. Besides the industrial or sewing room that I worked in, Western Leather was also a tannery and still made those shoe components. They tanned or more correctly, re-tanned cow shoulders for the waist belt industry. I was able to visit all these various departments and observe and learn about so many procedures in tanning and putting a finish on the leather. Even the welting and heel/counter divisions were mine to explore. The owner of WLPC was a man named Edward Yewer and his son was being groomed to take over the business. His name was Ted Yewer and we knew each other from the years that Boo Boo and I had together. The Yewer family was no stranger to the Pine Lake crowd of wealthy people. They family actually lived on Beaver Lake which is next to Pine Lake and is thought by some as to being the superior lake of the two. Ted and I would work together on business projects and we had our fair of mischief in the building too. One day we decided to climb to the top of the water towers that were on top of the building. It was a dangerous climb but the view was amazing. When the general manager of the company found out what we had done he had a fit. Being the son of the owner didn't give Ted any slack and I was guilty too!

Ted Yewer and I tried to upgrade the items that Western Leather enjoyed making for many years. We attended a number of trade shows in Chicago in hopes of attracting more business. Ted canvassed the state of Wisconsin and beyond with hopes of creating more business. We had sales reps who were doing the same but sales remained flat. A glossy brochure illustrating our line of goods was introduced but sales and enthusiasm was declining.

As the years wore on at Western Leather, I found myself looking out the window and longing to be independent again. Ted Yewer was a great guy but I think he saw the writing on the wall too. Western Leather and the upper management were not going to make the substantial investments they needed to continue moving the business along. The tannery and shoe divisions were slowing down and much of that work was being pressured by stiff competition from tiny hands in foreign lands. For Western Leather to take on the likes of Amity or Enger-kress was not going to happen. I made a decision and gave them my two weeks notice.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The End of an Era and a New Beginning.

It was during the summer of 1976 when I first noticed her walking by the front of my store.
She was tall, tan, pretty and lean. She would walk by on a regular basis so I knew she must work or live in the neighborhood. The woman who ran the restaurant across the street tipped me off that she was on of the Suminski girls from the family that ran the local funeral parlor down the block. Her name was Pamela, she had a twin sister and they both had attended St. Hedwig's Grade School. Since I was a good catholic boy who had went to the catholic school Holy Rosary, I was very interested in meeting her. Plus she was smoking hot with a swagger and strut that could stop a clock.

I positioned myself in front of The Leather Shop to intercept her as she strolled by.
Here I am in intercepting mode:

In Front of The Leather Shop - 1976

The older guy was my decoy so I stood out like the good guy I always was. Knowing that Pamela was attending UWM to get her degree in social studies, I could determine the approximate times she would pass me by. I would hum the tune by Getz and Gilberto, Girl From Ipanema in my head as she approached. "Tall and tanned and young and lovely, the girl from Ipanema goes walking by, and when she passes, each man she passes goes Aaah!" 

In the distance I could see her heading my way. When she reached the front of my store I simply said: "Hi" and she smiled every so beautifully and said" "Hi" back to me. I gulped and blurted out something like what's your name? She told me her name, we struck up a conversation and arranged to meet again. After our first date, we became inseparable, going to parties together, having picnics, car trips, movies and all the things young lovers do.  It was a lovely time to fall in love and through the rest of that year we spent as much time together as we could. The in love couple.
Bill Odbert and Pam Suminski - 1977

It was in late March the next year that Pamela and I would take our first long road trip together. Some friends of mine had a leather shop in Key West Florida and we were invited down to visit and vacation. My new Volvo was the perfect ride to take us there and off we went. To this day, I will never forget our first stop in a motel during our trip down. Pamela was an avid (if not rabid) fan of basketball and our very own Marquette Warriors were playing in the NCAA championship game. We watched as Marquette won the game and I marveled at how excited she got. She screamed, hollered and jumped on the bed. It was a great victory and her enthusiasm bowled me over. I was feeling pretty lucky dating a smart, hot looking babe who loved sports.

My feelings for her were strong and clear. I wanted to ask her to marry me. Towards the end of our stay in Key West, I proposed to her and offered her an engagement ring I had purchased and brought along. She said yes and as we traveled back to Wisconsin we made our wedding plans. Here is the happy couple in Key West.
Bill and Pam in Key West - 1977

Little did I know about wedding planning but I would soon learn that Pamela was the expert at wedding planning. She sought out various bands to play, halls to rent and caterers to employe. My job was to round up the groomsmen from the motley crew of male friends I had. Our wedding day was perfect with much joy and celebration. A large group of friends and relatives toasted us as we danced our first dance together. We honeymooned in the Virgin Islands and on return, we took up our residents at my old bachelor pad. It wasn't long before we became aware that we were going to be new parents. A baby was on the way and we were very thrilled with this news. Preparations were made for our new bundle of joy and we couldn't have been happier.

It was early in June, 1978 with Pamela being very large with a healthy child on the way when to our surprise during the June Brady Street Festival that Congressman Henry Reuss made a visit to our Leather Shop. He was introduced by his aids and we were asked by him if we had picked out a name for our new baby. At that time, we didn't know if it was a boy or a girl on the way but Congressman Reuss in his best political posturing suggested that since we were married at St. Hedwig's we could call the baby "Hedwig" as it could be for a boy or a girl. To this very day, our lovely daughter thanks us for giving her the name Ann Marie instead. 

Once again the Milwaukee Journal paid me a visit and this article appeared in the paper. Reading it one would think my business was good and storm clouds were no where to be seen. Don't believe everything you read in the paper.
This Article Appeared in the Milwaukee Journal - 1978

Congressman Reuss's visit was not coincidental but a planned event on both our parts.  The Department of City Development for Milwaukee was trying to help us merchants become stronger by becoming owners of our buildings. Congressman Reuss could influence the Small Business Administration to look at us as possible candidates for loans. After some deliberation with the SBA and the owner of my building, we could not come up with a price that was equitable. The land owner wanted way to much money and I couldn't afford his asking price even with the help of the SBA. There were also some troubling signs appear on Brady Street. After an almost ten year of business growth on Brady Street, I was seeing a substantial drop in customers and my sales were down too. Suburban malls were starting to draw customers away and the novelty of Brady Street was wearing thin. At one time it was difficult to find an empty store front on Brady but towards the end of 1977 and early 1978, more and more store fronts remained empty. The Brady Street Festival was still drawing huge crowds but the crowd appeared to be more interested in drinking, eating and people watching. Sales were on a downward spiral. An end of an era was ahead.

Being a young husband and a new father I was worried about how long I could weather the slow period the shop seemed to be in. A local power house of a tannery and manufacturing company approached me with an offer to come and work for them. It was The Western Leather Products Corporation and it was located right off Brady Street. They had been in business for close to 100 years and they wanted to have a creative person like myself join their company as a designer. Having been self-taught in the art and craft of leather work was nice but to actually learn from a company that had been doing leather work for many more years then me was very inviting. After much deliberation with my new wife and careful thought of my own I decided that I would close The Leather Shop at the end of 1978.

And so one chapter ends and another begins!