When times are tough, sheer inspiration, like an angel of grace, can come unbidden at the most unexpected moments — even though it might first appear in the guise of a discarded leather couch.
This was the experience of Ty Bowman, founder and owner of Lifetime Leather, a seven-year-old family business based in San Tan Valley, Arizona.
But the events that led up to the remarkable epiphany, which spun his life in a positive direction, is where this story of a leatherworker’s incredible ordeal and true grit must begin.
When Bowman was 15 years young, he and his dad, Rhett Bowman, decided to go zip lining, a recreational sport in which thrill seekers speed along a taut cable stretched between different elevations. The rider is attached to a pulley by a bar or halter and zips down the cable at adrenaline-rushing speed, propelled by the force of gravity.
But for young Bowman, the thrilling ride at Antelope Canyon, located near Lake Powell on the Arizona-Utah border, took a drastic turn. “I slipped off the cable and fell about 25 to 30 feet,” he said.
“I had been sliding down the cable at roughly 20 miles per hour. I was going a lot faster when I hit the ground,” he added, speaking with the amazing objectivity of someone now safely on the other side of a horrific, traumatic event. “The impact broke my ankles, legs, feet — 18 bones in 32 different places. Some bones literally flew out of my skin and onto the beach.”
Incredibly, an emergency medical technician witnessed the accident from his large yacht, parked on Lake Powell. “He had all this medical equipment on his yacht — stretchers, leg compression sleeves, everything needed for my kind of injuries,” he said. The EMT called a rescue service on his satellite phone and told them to send a helicopter, not an ambulance. He also gathered up broken bones and fragments.
“If the EMT hadn’t been there, the bones — the tibia, fibula and talus — would have been out of my body for too long,” Bowman explained. “I broke my heel bone in two places. I broke all the growth plates in the lower part of my body.” At the moment of impact, he felt no pain. “I’ve had more pain from banging my big toe. My body shut off all its pain receptors.”
Then, the EMT put Bowman on his yacht and raced to meet the helicopter landing at a marina, across the lake. He made it in only 45 minutes, a trip that could have taken three hours in a smaller boat. And, he advised the pilot that Bowman should be flown to Flagstaff Medical Center in Flagstaff, Arizona.
“One of the hospital surgeons said that he didn’t know what they were going to do. But during the surgery, he had this inspiration come to him. He had both legs fixed in four hours. If he hadn’t figured it out, they would have had to amputate the right leg,” Bowman said.
Rehab and recovery were slow going. It took three years before Bowman could walk again. “I was about 18 when they didn’t have to do more touch-up surgery and clean up scar tissue,” he recalled.
While on the mend, he kept busy by acquiring skills in arts and crafts, like calligraphy and cooking. He and his mom, Colleen Bowman, spent a lot of time together working on projects. “My mother is like Martha Stewart — a really talented baker, caterer and florist.”
And, he did a lot of leatherwork in the Boy Scouts, Troop 259. “I created mountain-man type stuff, like camping gear, walking stick covers, leather drawstring ‘possible’ bags and pocket knife sheaths. I got an Eagle Scout award.” His physical therapy was so demanding, however, that he didn’t finish high school. But, at age 18, he passed a GED exam.
Now, with a long recovery behind him, the world opened up. Raised in San Tan as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, in 2004, he went on a two-year mission to the New England area. Such missions are completely voluntary and involve teaching the people in the assigned area of Jesus Christ, while offering numerous acts of service among the community. Bowman and a friend served mostly in Maine.
“We try to help people who are down and to share the gospel. We did a lot of cleaning for local schools, helped elderly people chop wood for winter. You get a totally different perspective on how the world works. You see so many different types of people.”
In 2007, Bowman returned from his mission to San Tan Valley, where he met his future wife, Shaina Robinson. They married that same year. “We were living in a tiny, one-bedroom apartment in Mesa. I was working part-time at Home Depot. We were dirt poor. It was bad. Within two years, we had one kid and my wife was pregnant with the second.”
As the Christmas holiday neared, he was in despair about what to give his family for gifts. “We had no money. Then, while driving my pickup, I saw this couch tossed out in a yard — a leather couch with good leather. Before I knew it, I was at the owner’s doorstep asking if she wanted to use that couch for anything. My question weirded her out, but she let me take it.”
Bowman hauled the couch home and cleaned up the leather. “I started making stuff out of it— key chains, bracelets, wallets, handbags, all sorts of things. The leather on the back of the couch was in great shape. It looked brand-new. I still have a little bit of that couch leather.”
At the time, the country was still reeling from the recession. Millions of U.S. homes foreclosed. Arizona was hit particularly hard. By 2010, 67 percent of Phoenix-area homes were underwater.
“After the real estate bubble burst in 2008, a lot of foreclosures were going on in Arizona. By 2011, everyone was getting hammered,” Bowman said. “Leather couches were tossed off along the freeways all the time. As they fell end over end, their structures would get destroyed, but the leather backs were just fine. I’d collect leather couches on the side of the road. I got really good at salvaging the leather.”
At first, he sold his handmade leather goods directly to customers. “Everything was word of mouth. I’d make things for myself, like a holder for a scanner phone, and people would see it and say — ‘Wow, you make things from leather?!’ ” he said.
Then, someone told him to sell his products on Etsy.com, an e-commerce website that focuses on homemade, vintage and one-of-a-kind items and art materials. “I tried it, and it worked. I started making sales. I started to make more money selling leather items than I made at Home Depot.”
Soon, he started buying leather scraps from Tandy Leather. At first, he did all his leather crafting entirely by hand. “I saved and saved and saved and finally got a sewing machine — a Cobra Class 4 — a super, heavy-duty machine. I bought it brand-new.”
Just as they started to get really busy, Shaina Bowman got accepted into nursing school. “I said, ‘if we do this right, we’ll make more money than you doing nursing.’ So, she took her name off the list. It was like when the Vikings burn their ships. This was it! We both decided this was going to work, and it just worked,” he said.
From that moment, Lifetime Leather took off, a business name that reflects the long-lasting quality of the small company’s products. “Everything we make is guaranteed for life. If anything happens, we fix it for free. We don’t cut any corners,” he said.
These days, Bowman, 33, no longer needs to source leather from discarded leather couches. The products made in his Arizona workshop use top-grain, American-manufactured leather. “We buy our threads from a guy in Maine,” he said, referring to the waxed Dacron thread manufactured by Rusty Valley, owner and operator of Maine Thread & Machine Co. of Lewiston.
Bowman and his three full-time and two part-time assistants keep busy building leather products in a 3,000-square-foot workshop based in an industrial building in San Tan Valley, located a couple of miles from the Bowman’s home. “Wallets are hand-sewn. Bigger items, like handbags, are machine stitched,” he said.
Leather goods, come in various colors — emerald green, cognac, oxford brown, black, natural and ink blue. Products include tote bags adorned with copper and brass rivets, magnetic clasps and antique-colored brass zippers, crossbody bags, travel accessories, toiletry bags, belts, ladies’ clutches and rucksack bags and more.
Shaina Bowman handles the computer-related side of the business, including social media posts, customer relations and shipping. “I take the pictures and we post them online,” Ty Bowman said. The couple is now raising four children: ages 8, 6, 3 and 1, and they are expecting one more this coming spring.
The seasons determine which items garner the most sales. “Sometimes we sell more purses in the fall. Or, it’s travel bags. With Christmas, we’re seeing more sales with small stuff. It changes,” he said.
“We can make 20 to 50 tote bags per week. Altogether, we’re shipping about 50 items weekly. We’re more focused on quality than quantity. Everything is so disposable in our society. But, we make things that are repairable and will last a lifetime.”
Sales are made mostly online through Etsy and Amazon Handmade. “We do better on Etsy,” he noted. The company also wholesales to a few local markets, like boutiques and gift shops. And, once or twice a year, they set up their products under a 10×10-foot tent at the Phoenix Flea, a curated, open-air market held in Phoenix that showcases 150 quality vendors offering handcrafted, vintage, fine art and modern fashion items. “It’s worth it,” Bowman said.
Christmas is their biggest sale time of the year. “We make personalized gifts for men like duffle bags, belts and wallets, and men are hard to buy for,” he said. Sales are occasionally offered around the holidays.
What challenges does he foresee for 2019?
“Lots of competition. Our niche is growing like crazy. There used to be just a few of us. Now, there are a lot of us. Similar products are being made a lot cheaper, but they give no warranty. The customers we have acquired fall in love with the quality. We have a strong customer base — our following. And, we’re being more creative, coming up with more things. We always have to be coming up with new designs. We just came out with leather luggage tags. And, a new mini-tote will be coming out soon,” he said.
“You just have to make sure of your quality. We rely a lot on reviews,” he added, referring to customer feedback posted at Amazon, Etsy and the Lifetime Leather website. “If something is not right, we remake it. Everything is correct. Our quality control is excellent.”
Lifetime Leather Co.
Ty Bowman, founder & owner
San Tan Valley, AZ 85140
Facebook: (https://www.facebook.com/LifetimeLeatherCo/ ),
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