Feature

Dan Preston: Passing the Torch

By Nick Pernokas

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Sometimes paths to the future are erratic and hard to see. For a lucky few they converge and become more visible.

It’s hard for 63-year-old Dan Preston to put a finger on where he is from. His father worked for the C&O Railroad and his family was constantly on the move. A job with U.S. Steel led them to Venezuela for a few years. Eventually, Dan ended up in a military school in Virginia. He liked to use his hands and when he graduated, he stayed in Virginia working first as a carpenter, and then as a fitter in the shipyards.

He continued to further his education as well; he earned his B.A. at Madison College and then his Master’s at the University of Virginia. Dan taught English for a while, and then went on to get his PhD in Creative Writing from the State University of New York. Dan seemed destined for a career in higher education – the trouble was he’d also discovered a love for leatherwork.

“I started messing around with leather when I was in high school,” says Dan. “I never did it as a hobby; it was always a business.”

When Dan had free time while at the military school, he would go over to a local saddle maker’s shop in Chatham, Virginia, to watch him work. Dan learned a few techniques, and bought some leather from the saddle maker. This was the late sixties and leather accessories were in vogue, so soon Dan was making simple purses, vests and hats.

“I used a double-edged razor blade for cutting the leather,” laughs Dan. “I pinched the razor blade hard in the middle. My fingers were cut to hell all the time.”

After high school, Dan moved to Harrisonburg, Virginia, where there was a large Mennonite community. There, Dan found out about an older Mennonite harness maker, Lewis Martin, and started going over to his shop. Since Dan was hanging around, Lewis rented him space to do his leather work. Dan’s experience with razor blades had given him an appreciation for good tools, and he began to accumulate some. Soon he was doing better quality custom work, like chaps, as well as working for Lewis part time. Lewis made buggy and work harness, and repaired everything else. Dan was able to work on saddles and other tack, but he received a priceless education on building harness.

“Lewis was a very good craftsman, and he was a very good teacher too. He was very patient.”

Later, Dan moved to Charlottesville, Virginia, for school and went to work for Earl Lloyd, a maker of fine harness in Keswick. He followed this with a stint at the shop of Lew Williams.

“Lew was a fine craftsman, but he was difficult and he had trouble keeping employees.”

Because of this, Lew had completely automated his shop. Dan learned a lot about machinery and the steps it could save.

After Dan got his Master’s degree, he taught at several universities. He moved to Richmond, Virginia, where he also worked part time as a clicker operator for Sea Dream Leather. Sea Dream Leather made personal leather goods that were sold through their stores at malls and outlets.

“I learned more about machinery and how things were manufactured in a large operation.”

After Dan received his PhD, he moved around for several teaching jobs. It was a hard time to be a teacher because there were so many qualified applicants for every advertised job. By now Dan also had a healthy resume in the writing and publishing business. He’d written material for the Virginia Department of Tourism, The Voice of America, and sold numerous short stories, articles and poems. Still, it was hard to make ends meet. As his last teaching contract wound down in the late eighties, Dan decided to transition into the leather business full time.

Dan opened his first full-time shop in Cullowhee, North Carolina. Business was good, but Dan was still teaching a little at night. One day he received a note in the mail. It began, “Free to a good home…” A Pennsylvania harness maker named Leroy Sensenig, had started a four-page mimeographed newsletter for harness makers in 1984. Four years later, Leroy had grown tired of publishing The Harness Shop News and offered it to Dan.

“He wasn’t very hopeful about it, but I saw the potential of it.”

Dan already knew how to research, write and publish; he also knew about leather. The newsletter fit like an old glove.

“It matched my skills, and there wasn’t anything else like it at the time. I took it very seriously and really worked at it.”

Dan reworked the look and format of the newsletter. It still was only eight to twelve pages, but Dan would cut it out and paste it up for printing so everything was neat. Where Leroy had given it away to advertise his hardware business, Dan began to charge for subscriptions. Within a year or two it had a cover and more of a magazine format. For a number of years Dan did all the writing, marketing and the set up. Eventually, Dan changed the name to Shop Talk! because many people thought it only covered the harness trade. This change brought more advertising from the leather industry, as the magazine was no longer seen as solely catering to harness makers.

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Today, The Proleptic Company has become well known for the large library of leather-related books and tools that they sell, but at the time Dan just needed something to call his corporation. The name comes from the Greek word “prolepsis,” which means to prepare for what’s coming in the future, by looking at what has come before.

The Buyers Guide was Dan’s next innovation. It started out as a small flyer once a year that listed suppliers. The Guide went out to all the subscribers as well as 16,000 retailers and manufacturers worldwide. By 2016, it was a 162-page catalog of everything you might need in any facet of the leather business. Today, the index is easy to use by looking up what product you might need, seeing who supplies it and then finding their contact info. The only problem with it – it wasn’t around when many of us started. The print format is easier than a computer for someone working in a shop all day that has to quickly look something up.

The next move for Proleptic was books. Dan decided to find out who owned the rights to The Dictionary of Leather Tools, an excellent out-of-print book that Dan wanted to make available again. Although he wasn’t able to buy the rights, Dan was able to facilitate the sale to a good publishing company and put it back into print. In the process Dan wrote the foreword for the new edition and was able to offer it through Proleptic. Dan figured out the process and was able to bring other out-of-print books back to the industry. He also purchased new books and eventually wrote a series of “how to” books. In 2005, Dan and his former boss, Lewis Martin, wrote Making Harness. This 460-page illustrated manual has become the go-to book if you want to learn to make harness.

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“That book wouldn’t have been possible without Lewis. It was his expertise that made it so good. It probably didn’t make financial sense to do it, but I felt it was important to preserve that knowledge. Someone can struggle for years trying to do something, and if you can show them a way to do it in five minutes, that’s really giving them a leg up.”

Proleptic also got into innovative leather tools. Back 2002, Dan began buying and refurbishing old leather tools that he would then offer for sale once a year in Shop Talk! He enjoyed working on the items he picked up and giving the readers access to old tools they wouldn’t otherwise see. Then, inspired by a concho turner that Texas saddle maker Danny West had come up with, he created the Pro Concho Turner.  It had a rubber pad that made installing saddle conchos much easier; and other tools followed. Dan would come up with prototypes, experiment with them and then get someone to build them. Some didn’t survive the experimentation phase, while others became popular with leather workers. Some tools were adapted from other uses and applied to the saddler’s needs, like the thermal tools. Some were actual old tools no longer produced that Dan tweaked for the modern day craftsman.

Today Shop Talk! is still available in a print and paper format. It serves a traditional-minded clientele, many of whom don’t have computers in their shops. In fact, many of the readers don’t have a computer at all. Shop Talk! has a wide readership of Amish and Mennonites, who have been forgotten in the dust of change by other publications. Shop Talk! is also available online in a printable version.

“I think we made a positive contribution to the industry. We’ve linked people together. That provided some protection to the smaller shops who would now call if they had trouble dealing with an unscrupulous individual or company. They knew they had someone who would listen. ”

Shop Talk! promoted and provided free advertising to the Saddle Makers and Boot Makers Round Up that was held in Texas. He supported The Harness Makers Get Together, other smaller events and auctions, and put on some English saddle making seminars.

Today Dan and Shop Talk! enter a new phase in their lives; Shop Talk! has been sold to the Burns Family in Utah. They have their own long-time association with the leather industry. Dan admits being ready to move on, but having a bittersweet feeling as well. As far as he‘s concerned, the Burns are the right people to carry on the magazine’s legacy. And Dan…well, he’s looking forward to starting a new career as a photographer. I have a feeling, though, that a sandy beach at sunset and a cold beverage may also be in his future. I’ll raise my glass back at him and think of the last thing he said about Shop Talk!

“I’ve always thought the articles we did were good journalism. They never were just fluff pieces or filler. We maintained a high level of quality which, for a small magazine, is quite an accomplishment.”

 

 

 

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