Evolving with the Times
By Liisa Andreassen
When I visited Jackson’s Western Store in Asheville, North Carolina, a few days before this past Christmas, it was a bit like visiting Santa’s workshop. Upstairs was a colorful retail shop and downstairs was the leather shop and its artisans. Whether filling a custom order for a gun holster or crafting a new belt to be added to the inventory, these leathersmiths were busy bees. One of the owners, Charles Jackson, led me on a tour of this 14,000-square-foot piece of real estate that’s home to many interesting artifacts…in addition to a serious selection of saddles, cowboy boots, western wear and more.
One of Asheville’s oldest family-owned businesses (third generation), Jackson’s, like many western shops, started out as a trading post. It was 1938 and Stonewall Jackson (no relation to the famous general), Charles’ grandfather, opened the doors in downtown Asheville. Stonewall was a traveling salesman born and raised in southeast Georgia and fell in love with Asheville, so he and his wife relocated to the city.
“It was a different time – a time when it was a common occurrence to see a horse-drawn carriage moving along the train tracks,” Charles says.
They started out selling mostly dry goods and clothing, and then his two sons, Thomas and Julian, took the shop to the next level. In 1946, when Julian got out of the service after World War II, they started offering feed and seed, leather repair, harness making and a line of western clothing that was new to this part of the country.
As the business grew, so did the need for more space. A piece of land in a prominent part of town became available and in 1973, the building began for Jackson’s Western Store’s new home. John Jackson, Julian’s son, took the harness/leather shop to new national heights with custom, hand-made leather goods that were largely sought after. Charles Jackson, Thomas’s son, became a staple of the saddle/tack business. Today, this dynamic duo continue to juggle multiple tasks from crafting saddles and selling horseshoes to writing checks and balancing books.
“We do whatever it takes to keep the doors open,” he says. “We all do a little of everything.”
Some of their popular items made in-house include briefcases, holsters, knife sheaths and some saddles. Charles still does leatherworking and says that’s what he enjoys most. He learned the craft from previous generations and talks to other leather makers in the business. He knows a lot of saddle makers and goes out of town for conferences and talks to them about how they do what they do.
“I really just picked it up. You can’t get worse at it, you’ve got to get better, so it’s just practicing day in and day out,” he says.
They have the help of other family members, too. Quite often you’ll find Charles’ daughter, Brittany, behind the cash register and his son, Nathan, helping customers get suited for a saddle. One of the leathersmiths, Larry Wade, has been with Jackson’s for nearly 40 years. He’s also considered family. Meanwhile, the next generation can be found playing in the playpen in the rear of the store, in an office which doubles as daycare.
Charles says that roles are continually shifting.
“I miss working in the shop,” he says. “When my father passed away in 1999, I had to come upstairs and that was a challenge. I was used to the workshop, not the business side, but I’ve had to figure it out.”
He says he also misses some of the slower pace of previous years, but time marches on.
Currently, Jackson’s employs 15 on a regular basis and hopes to maintain its reputation in the industry. Despite changing times, business remains good.
“You just don’t have the population of horses that there used to be,” he says. “But, we keep moving along.”
Charles says that they ship products all over including the Netherlands, Italy, China and Russia.
“I sell a lot of unusual, used saddles, custom-made stuff,” he says. “I kind of specialize in Wade saddles – Buckaroo-type saddles – and there’s a real niche for that stuff.”
Speaking of unusual, one of the more oddball requests that Jackson’s has received came from Ringley Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. They were in town and asked Charles to come over and measure two of their horses.
“They were just huge horses,” he says. “They wanted saddles made with a platform where tigers could ride,” he says. “These saddles had swells in the front and back and the tigers could just jump right up there. We’ve also made some harnesses for camels, miniature horses and goats. There’s been a lot of stuff over the years.”
Down the road
For the past 30 years or so, there’s been talk of a major highway coming through where Jackson’s now sits.
“A meeting the other day made me think that this is about to happen three to five years down the road,” Charles says. “So, my charge now is to begin looking around for a new location – maybe something bigger.”
So, will there be a fourth generation to take the reins?
“I want the boys to come to me and ask to work here. I don’t want to push them into it, but I’m hopeful,” Charles says.
Jackson’s Western Store
641 Patton Ave
Asheville, NC 28806