Martha Stewart seems to like St. Paul’s Leather Works MN.
The family-run craft studio, open since 1999, is operated by Kent and Lee Begnaud and their son Nathan O’Malley. Until two years ago there were only two full-time employees, Lee and Kent; now there are four full-time employees, a part-time intern and two as-needed part-timers. In addition to leather design, Nathan is the social media director. His brother, Tony O’Malley, a construction worker, drops by to help out sometimes.
“We still love the feel and smell of leather,” said Kent, who enjoys “taking all the different textures of leather and making something beautiful.”
Kent was especially tickled about suspenders he made for a wedding party earlier this year. Knowing that I would eventually do an LWM video, I asked the groom if I could attend the wedding reception held at Delano’s Woodland Hill Winery in June.
In grander video news, Martha Stewart sent producers to the leather designers’ Lowertown studio a couple of weeks ago to shoot video and do interviews for reasons about which the Begnauds are vague. It may have something to do with this August e-mail I got from Lee: “Kent and I are nominees for the Martha Stewart American Made contest. Go to www.marthastewart.com/americanmade/nominee/79935 and cast your vote for us! You can vote up to six times a day until Sept. 26.”
That was a rare play for attention, as that they neglected to tell me that Jay Z apparently picked up an eyeglass case they made. They have been very bad. At the end of my startribune.com/video interview with Kent, there’s a little snapshot into what can happen to friends who forget to pony up such tidbits.
Q What am I supposed to make of you having a swing, built to hold 800 pounds, in your new studio space?
A That is the Creative Design Department. If anybody gets bucky [and he doesn’t mean another word; he doesn’t curse] at work, they have to go swing on it until they get happy again. [Lee calls it the Research & Development Department.]
Q What’s the weirdest item somebody has asked you to create?
A Mink-lined jock. Didn’t do it. Where I draw the line. It’s the truth. [Laughter]
Q Did you notice an uptick in unusual leather product requests when “50 Shades of Grey” was so hot?
A No. Everybody was too busy reading the book to order anything. [Laughter]
Q What is the best business advice you’ve ever received?
A Have a lot of small customers. Then if you lose one, you don’t really miss them. If you are invested in one large customer and they go away, you lose your business. Ron Holm, an old boss [at a leather manufacturing company], said: Little pigs get bigger, big pigs get slaughtered.
Q What have you done to pass this trade on to younger generations?
A Mostly train ’em right here in the shop. We have interns [who] work here. Through the Dunwoody Makers Coalition, there is a program now, a sewing certification program. It’s a six-month course to teach people to use machines, basic math. Even some English. They just graduated their first class this year.
Q How old is your oldest sewing machine?
A I think it’s over 100. This old Singer. I actually was able to download the owner’s manual from the Smithsonian Institution’s archive. And you can still order parts for it. It’s great. Hasn’t changed much over the years.
Q I don’t see any of those fancy computerized sewing machines around here.
A No, we don’t have anything like that. They are all basic, single-needle stitch machines. Not that we wouldn’t like to have one. We may go to that, depending on the demand.
Q How has technology helped your business?
A A lot. Social media has been the key thing. Besides the grace of God, social media is the next thing that really did make a big, big difference. It’s all free. It’s gotten the word out there. Instagram, it’s been golden for us. LeatherworksMN, Facebook. In our online store we get orders almost daily. That’s been great.
Q On the flip side, do you forgo technology and do anything the “old-fashioned” way?
A Yes. We do some hand-sewing. We do one hand-sewn product [a three-pocket wallet], and it’s been really well received. And we’re working on some other things. We do our ordering of inventory by hand and inspecting of hides by hand.
Q Do I understand that Jay Z owns something that you made?
A Rumor has it. We do some eyeglass cases for a place called Silver Lining [Opticians] in New York City, and they tweeted us that he had picked up one of the cases. [That prompted the interviewer to crack a whip made of belt scraps for not informing her.] Sorry, C.J., not the whip again!
Q Tell me about Martha Stewart.
A Yeah, Martha Stewart found us last August. They were interested in featuring one of our products in the Martha Stewart Whole Living magazine for their Christmas gift guide, and they did. Then they came around again this year for the [American Made] contest they are promoting; came and did some videotaping, interviews and looked at our products.
Q And again YOU DIDN’T CALL ME?
A We were waiting for something really big to happen. You actually whipped me [laughing and rubbing the spot on his cheek].
Interviews, like some interviewees, are edited and whipped into shape. C.J. can be reached at email@example.com.