Bag Lady: Part Two

So, as I said, my threadbare metallic-coated made in China Gap handbag has to go. A leather tote might work better for me. I log onto etsy.com, enter "leather handbags"in the search window. Etsy's handcrafters from around the globe offer up 99 pages of products. I narrow my search: "leather handbags made in the usa." One page. Hey, one's better than none. I choose optimism.

I scroll down, land on a $290 grey leather / denim tote made by Andrea Mercado: Handcrafted in Los Angeles. That's more than I can spend, but considerably less than the $795 leopard print Be & D bag at Nordstrom. And because Etsy asks sellers to provide a profile, I can read the story behind the leather / denim tote:

My uncle and I decided to join forces and create Andrea Mercado, a handbag and leather accessories studio. Andrea Mercado is my grandmother's maiden name. We named the company after my grandmother as a living tribute to her. My uncle Alfonso Gaytan has been in the leather industry since the early 80s and continues to make every single handbag himself alone. From cutting to sewing, his skills amaze me everyday. I've been in graphic design and music all my life, producing and djing for my Headinghome imprint or designing for such clients as Sony Music, Universal and many other independent music and nightclub industries. My art direction and my uncle's craftsmanship are at the base of our creative process. We work in a fluid way, bouncing ideas off each other until we find the right design for each bag. We continually improve on the design.

Can't you just see this seller and her uncle, talking about handbags, sketching things out, excited about what they're doing? Maybe I'm naïve. Maybe "Uncle Alfonso" can't possibly make each and every Andrea Mercado bag that's for sale on Etsy. Maybe Uncle Alfonso doesn't even exist. But at this point, like choosing optimism, I choose to believe. They sound like a close-knit American family. They offer quality products made in Long Beach, California. Although I don’t order anything from them at this moment, perhaps I will in the future. And I'll certainly email these sellers to find out how Uncle Alfonso works his leather magic.

On to the next seller. The Purse Peddlers, in Charlotte, Michigan. Crafters Jeff and Candy Halstead make leather wallets, wristlets, totes, and backpack-style bags. Classic, unfussy styles, reasonable prices. Here's their profile:

Candy started making leather purses in 1988 when a birthday gift rapidly turned into a business. She made one for her mother and mother-in-law and others saw it and wanted one too and let's just say the rest is history. Jeff joined the business in 1992 after leaving his factory job, and the duo has been creating wonderful purses ever since. They have been doing arts and craft shows all over Michigan and have been blessed with wonderful customers and have decided to branch out and give the Internet a try!

Before ordering a small black leather tote ($72), I email the sellers. Candy Halstead responds. I give her a call. And later, when I have more questions, Jeff answers the phone. So I've actually spoken to the entire two-person company. Together, this pair makes 40 to 50 purses per week. Each purse takes about one-and-a-half to two hours to make. On weekends, Jeff and Candy are often up at 3AM and out the door, headed for arts and crafts shows. They attend 30 per year. But here's the thing: they love what they do. They're happy.

Listening to Candy and Jeff talk, I hear what American entrepreneurial spirit {still alive} sounds like. I hear how, in this country, one thing can still lead to another. Theirs is a story about stepping stones. About climbing the ladder. About becoming your own boss. How cool is that?

It all began in the early 80s, when Candy began working in a local furniture factory (it closed a few years ago). At the factory Candy learned how to operate industrial sewing machines. She helped her husband find a job there, as well. He, too, learned about furniture making and working with leather. Sometimes Candy would bring home scraps of leather. She'd cut and sew them into purses. She'd give them as gifts to friends. When the pair had their three children, Candy wanted to be home to raise them. She began her own re-upholstering business, using the skills she'd learned in the factory.

But those purses? Well, people wanted them. And so Candy began designing and sewing more of them. She got so busy, her two daughters sometimes helped out (her son is away in school in Minnesota). And her husband decided to quit the furniture factory and join Candy's thriving purse-making endeavor. Candy calls it her "accidental business." And Jeff says "It's great being your own boss."

Some say this country has moved beyond "factory jobs." To them I say: look at Jeff and Candy Halstead. If not for the furniture factory, Candy never would've learned to cut and sew leather, Jeff never would've followed her to the factory and done the same. Now they hope to get the word out about their beautiful handmade products. They hope to sell more. Perhaps expand. But even if not, they're content with things just as they are. Making purses, selling at shows, seeing customers who've become friends.

They look at their home state, however, and sigh. "Things are tough," says Candy. "Detroit has lost 25% of its population. Michigan is the only state in the nation that's suffered a population decline." When her cheerleader-daughter's football team made it to the state championships, Candy and family passed through Detroit. The signs of financial distress stood out. "We saw old projects, deserted buildings…so sad to think what's happened."

I should mention that the Halsteads purchase leather from an Italian tannery. And at one time they tried antique brass zippers and accessories from China, but the quality was so poor they no longer do so. "It's just so hard to find some of these things here anymore," Candy said. It's not for lack of trying.

Jeff says my black tote bag should arrive soon. My own slice of Michigan know-how, headed my way. Can't wait.

Coming up: Bag Lady continues.