When James Brown was just 14, he was running a small shop in his father’s basement. He sold his leather goods to Barrington Street merchants until the market shifted in the ‘70s and fewer folks wanted handmade items.
Brown worked in boat-building for many years but continued to work on his leather creations, even traveling to Alberta to study saddle-making. He opened Steady Brook Custom Leather & Saddlery in 1998 and says business has been especially good in the last eight years as consumers once again demand quality, handmade products.
“There’s really been a revival. People like knowing they’re buying something that’s been designed and created locally,” says Brown, who lives and works in Mount Uniacke
He’ll be set up at the Halifax Crafters Society Spring Fair this weekend with new designs of handbags, belts, shaving bags, wallets and cosmetic bags — even items made from leather in soft pastel tones. His best-selling product is a creation called the Bucket Bag — a wood-bottomed leather tote that was originally designed for a horse’s grooming tools and is often used as a beach bag or even a beer caddy.
Brown says he loves what he does and he enjoys when customers approach him with new ideas for custom foods.
“I just made a bridle for a woman in New Brunswick who’d been looking for something specific for years and couldn’t find it,” says Brown. “It was so nice to be able to make her something she always wanted.”
Halifax’s Ellen Murphy started making journals in 2011 “to keep her hands busy” after graduating from NSCAD and says it snowballed into making blank books, day planners and themed journals for tastings and pregnancy.
Murphy will be at the show this weekend with Polaroid guest books for weddings, spring cleaning/planning products and plenty of different book styles.
She spends at least 30 hours a week on the business and also cleans houses on the side. She and her partner are raising a toddler and both work from home, so they try to stagger their work schedules depending on who has the busiest week.
“Balancing work and family is really tricky, more so because it’s not a typical line of work — they tend to blend into each other,” says Murphy.
With a visual arts background and a strong musical side, Murphy admits sometimes the business does feel “very job-y” — especially when it comes to bookkeeping. One day she’d like to own an artisanal paper boutique and book bindery where she could sell her creations as well as paper products to local creatives.
“I’ve been working on diverting from the product line and the assembly line of working and putting a little more attention into the aesthetic, which is sort of scratching that itch,” says Murphy.
Dartmouth designer Geordan Moore decided to think of a sudden layoff as the perfect opportunity to launch his own business. He opened The Quarrelsome Yeti in 2010 and has made a name for himself with his unique silkscreened prints and apparel, as well as laser-etched wooden pins called Woodies.
“These are kind of luxury items which can be difficult because people don’t always have the budget for handmade things,” says Moore.
He dreams of opening an open studio and print shop where he could share the space with other artists and run workshops, but until then he’s happy working away on his pieces.
“If I had unlimited money, I’d be doing the same thing — just more comfortably,” says Moore.
Antigonish’s Deborah Jenkins started making bags in 2014 but it was just a year ago that she really dug her heels in and went for it.
“The reactions were much better than I anticipated and I met so many other crafters who were able to understand where I was and suggest next steps,” says Jenkins, the owner of the Antigonish Bag Company. “They’ve been so supportive.”
She works out of her parents’ basement to keep costs down, and her mother helps with some of the production and much of the administrative work. She’d love to open a design studio that could support multiple designers so there was always someone around to provide a different perspective on a project.
Jenkins will be at the Spring Fair this weekend with her heavy-duty waxed canvas bags with leather handles — as well as new lightweight cross-body bags with removable straps — and is pleased more customers are in the market for handmade goods.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: Halifax Crafters Society Spring Fair
WHERE: Olympic Community Centre, 2304 Hunter St., Halifax
WHEN: Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
ADMISSION: Free