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Thursday, January 14, 2010

Because I'm the Best, Part 2

Jim Murnak is originally from Pittsburgh, PA. His interest in leather goes back to when he was 13, working with Tandy leather kits. Some university, including studies in advertising at SVA, led to his work as an art director at Ogilvy and Mather. After a large employee layoff, Jim began his career as a leather craftsman. A retail shop on Sullivan Street was followed by a number of loft spaces, where he manufactured and sold to the trade.

I occasionally dropped in on Jim in the 1970s at a number of his Manhattan locations. On one visit, I was stunned at the level to which he had advanced, taking on products that were really unheard of for a self-taught artisan. I watched him build leather-covered wood attache cases - Jim was constructing the wood frames, covering them with leather, and installing brass hardware and locks.

At the time, there were a small number of leather artisans in New York City. Most knew each other, and it was clear to all of us that Jim had reached the pinnacle of success, selling to the top retailers in the city - Bloomingdales, Crouch and Fitzgerald, and Abercrombie and Fitch - at the time, the most expensive retailer of goods in the city (Jim told me that Chinese imports essentially killed this business for USA manufacturers).

On another occasion, I found him lining handbags - standard for high-quality finished goods, but an unthinkable "waste" of leather for those of us making leather products by hand. When I questioned him about what appeared to me to be rather indulgent, he said that he was not making hippie stuff and that his clients demanded this type of product finish.

Tracking him down was a simple find online. He has since settled in the Dumbo neighborhood of Brooklyn, where he has been for many years and where I caught with him recently. He was congenial and welcoming as always and permitted photos and a follow-up phone interview.

I was not surprised to see that he had found a few new high-end niche markets: custom manufacturing gun holsters, pool cue cases, and archery quivers. A passion and experience in an activity will always give an equipment manufacturer the inside knowledge and edge needed - Jim's father was a professional pool player, and Jim has had serious interests in pool and in target archery.

Unfortunately, Jim also acquired an insider's guide to handguns after being held up at gunpoint in the subway in the 1990s. After obtaining a gun and permit, Jim found the quality of holsters subpar and began to make them. He can custom craft a holster for nearly any handgun using one of his forms. He has also worked in Cordura nylon for some years making police training suits. Jim does business as Fist Inc. - see his website here.

In the 1970s, there were a handful of suppliers to the leather craft trade in Manhattan, including Great Jones Leather. It is here that one day I ran across Jim, who had come in for a pack of industrial razor blades. The salesman, who was also a leather craftsman, appeared to be stunned that someone else knew his secret for precision cutting. "Wow," he said, "I use razor blades too. Why do you?"
To which Jim replied, quite confidently and as a statement of fact, "Because I'm the best."


Anonymous said...

Glad to read that Jim has survived in a business model that continually evaporates in this country - fine art craftsmanship.
Do you still do any leather work?

Brian Dubé said...

Jim has struggled recently. But he is fleet footed and always separates himself from the pack with high quality products in unaddressed niches. I have not done leather work in 35 years.

Thérèse said...

Such a meticulous artistry.

Chuck Pefley said...

Great story.