Meet Tom – The Leathersmith Firefighter

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When you invest hundreds of dollars in a leather handbag, how should you care for it? Should the leather be pretreated? And what about cleaning scuffs? Or ink marks? Or lipstick smudges? We decided to pose the question to Tom, an expert in our backyard, who has been running a leather repair shop in Mineral Point, Wisconsin, for decades. On our search to learn about caring for leather, we also unexpectedly received an education about … life.

Tom developed an interest in all things mechanical from an early age: his father owned a local gas station/auto repair shop where Tom worked on engines. He even learned to fly his very own Cessna 120 at the ripe age of 17.

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“Things were cheaper back then,” Tom volunteered. Especially when you do all the engine repairs and plane upkeep yourself.

Tom became interested in learning the shoe repair trade while still in college. By that time his father owned a shoe shop, and Tom became intrigued by the craftsmanship of shoes. He sought to learn the craft through an intense one-week session from an instructor from Milwaukee, then continued to teach himself while working part-time on what he considered his hobby. Knowing he was about to get drafted, and wanting to work on plane engines, in 1963 Tom volunteered into the Army’s aviation division and served in Vietnam and then Germany.

Even though the Army took him around the world, in Tom’s opinion there’s ”no better place than Mineral Point.”

After three years in service, he returned to Mineral Point and never looked back – working as a postal worker, a volunteer fireman (as fire chief for five years) and a machinist on his uncle’s farm in the summer, as well as raising a family – all while perfecting his leather repair craft.

In 1977 Tom decided to open up his shoe repair shop full-time. What he likes best about the work is that, to him, it isn’t a job. No two projects are alike, and he never knows what’s going to walk in the door. He enjoys the challenge of finding out which method will fix the problem.

Now back to those handbags. Should you treat your new handbag before you use it to protect it? “You can,” Tom hesitated, “with simple saddle soap; heck, you could do that once a week, but why? Doesn’t it look better when it’s been used?”

Yeah, but what about stains? “Depends on the stain and the color of the leather.” We showed Tom some scuff marks on a sample piece of leather. He studied it for a moment, pulled a can of polish off his shelf, tore a piece of cotton fabric and started to rub. “90% of repair work is patience. You need to experiment to see what works.” And before our eyes the scuff marks disappeared. “Well, that worked,” he said modestly.

Other stains can be tougher, and that’s when the experimenting comes into play. A mix of this paste, a drop of that solvent. And of course, patience. Tom says the “fancier” colors are trickier to clean because the colors are harder to match.

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But, “Nothing is impossible,” Tom added. Especially if you have someone working on the problem with the experience and determination of Tom.

As we were wrapping up the interview Tom’s beeper went off. “Whoa. There’s a fire, gotta go.” And in a flash this 73-year-old man was out of his shop, in his truck and off to the emergency. Ben, a coworker shooting some pics, and I looked at each other and out loud wondered, “Should we close up his shop?” Probably not.

So the short answer is: Yes. If you want to treat and clean your leather handbag so it always looks like new, there are ways. But maybe it would be better to skip all the fuss and let its true character show. Because witnessing a well-lived life is much more interesting, isn’t it?

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