Made in the U.S.A. Scratch that. Handmade in the U.S.A. It’s an ideal that many are coming back to, as a consumer and as a manufacturer. For Seth Gray, making leather goods with his hands is extremely rewarding. After over a decade working in strategic marketing for residential construction, and then in the educational publishing industries, Gray decided he was ready for a change and started making leather goods under the name Beauty and the Biker. First, it’s the story of his blended family with his wife Alaina Shearer, and second, it’s a leather goods company centered on the ideas of conscious consumption and heirloom quality items, worthy of generations.
“Taking a flat, 7’ x 4’ cowhide, and convincing it to turn into a rugged, elegant crossbody bag, or a leather briefcase that’ll be around long after I’m gone, is great,” says Gray. “What’s even better is seeing people smile when I deliver their order. They feel good about spending their hard-earned cash on something made just for them. And I get great satisfaction knowing they won’t have to spend more money on a replacement in a few years.”
Gray began the company in 2012 with the support of his wife Shearer.
“When I started, Alaina and I talked about it,” he says. “We decided to take it slow, and try not to use debt. She is the primary source of income for our family, and until I sold that first briefcase, also the only source of capital for Beauty and the Biker. Matronage, rather than Patronage.”
His first workshop was his garage.
“There’s something about designing and producing leather goods with a Harley-Davidson two feet behind you,” he says. “Depth. Strength. A sort of rugged elegance that can’t help but come through in the product.”
But with their family of six and an 83 pound dog, finding a bigger place became a priority. They discovered a listing on Zillow for one of the oldest homes in Delaware County and loved it when they saw it.
“It even had a horse barn with a tack shop,” says Gray. “Having a separate space to expand the Beauty and the Biker leather goods business was definitely nice to have.”
The tack shop is 240 square feet with more room in the barn to expand if the opportunity arises. Gray is currently deciding on the timing for adding an employee.
The shop did need some attention before he could move his business in. Carpet needed removed, wood paneling needed painted, electricity needed repaired. Light switches were added. The best parts remained.
“I love the wagon wheel chandelier that’s missing a few pieces,” says Gray. “The heavy fence post columns for holding horse tack. The mantle. The exterior doors both have screens, which lets a good breeze blow through.”
The commute of a short walk out the back door of his home is a big positive, allowing him to care for his family and work on his business with ease.
A typical day for Gray:
“I put in about 40-50 hours a week right now, which is about double what I did last year. Plus take care of the kids and work on the house. I get up at five every morning and go up to the shop for a few hours. Then, it’s back down to the house to help everyone get off to school and work. Once Alaina and the older kids are gone, the toddler and I hang out for a while until his morning nap, during which I go back to up to the shop and wrangle leather some more. Afternoons/early evenings are spent taking care of the house and cooking (I love cooking). Once the kids are in bed, Alaina and I get to spend a couple hours together. About every other night, I go back to the shop from 9:30 to midnight or so.”
It sounds like a lot to do, but when you love what you are doing, it’s a good life. Gray made his first bag while in college, after a search for a durable bag to carry his books came up short.
“They all seemed too expensive for what they offered: $100 for a backpack that’ll probably break after a year? $250 for a messenger bag with plastic hardware? So, I bought a side of leather, some tools, a book on bag construction, and made myself a briefcase.”
He still has that briefcase, only now it carries his musical instruments. It’s also gotten a revision with a new handle.
“It’s a little rough around the edges, but the thing is still kicking,” he says.
Before launching his business, Gray researched the market and discerned that “there was room for another contender.”
The first briefcase he made, he listed on Etsy and sold within five days. The next one sold in five hours. He’s still making handmade leather briefcases, and has added purses, wallets, key chains, and leather portfolio/notebook covers. He also takes custom orders, recently working with two Cameron Mitchell Restaurants, The Guild House to make their check presenters, and The Barn at Rocky Fork Creek to make menu covers for their bourbon-centric bar.
Gray has kept the costs of his investments low by finding deals on sewing machines and his workbench which was a vintage find from Grandview Mercantile.
“The only brand-new items in the shop are my hand tools and my cylinder arm sewing machine,” he says.
His favorite tool is the Cowboy 3500 cylinder bed sewing machine that he recently purchased from a company in Toledo.
“It’s a beast,” says Gray. He purchased a model slightly larger than what he needed, anticipating new products and different leathers.
While pricing edge finishers, he found Mike Hall of Maycomb Mercantile in Atlanta, GA, a fellow leather worker who built his own and kindly shared his $150 DIY.
For anyone looking to get into the maker movement, Gray shares his own advice:
“If you want to make a leather briefcase, do it. Sketch it out. I build the piece in my head and try to work out all the details. Most importantly, don’t be afraid of messing up. $200 of leather is probably not going to break you, so don’t let it stop you.”