by Gene Fowler
When calling a contemporary business on the telephone, do you ever long for the olden days when you could actually speak to a real human being? Of course you do. That may be overstating the case…a little bit. But in these dizzy times of automation and virtual, online interaction, the relative lack of actual human contact often leaves me feelin’ a little…well, lonesome.
Fortunately, there’s still outfits around like Panhandle Leather in Amarillo. Partly known for the famous Big Texan Steak Ranch, where heavy-duty carnivores eat free if they can finish a 72-ounce prime cut and all the fixin’s within one hour, and for the line of half-buried Eldorados called Cadillac Ranch, the city resonates best in George Strait’s spirit-lifting rodeo lament, “Amarillo by Morning.”
When you’re headed for Amarillo, pilgrim, you’re cowboyin’ up.
“That’s right,” says Panhandle Leather owner Jim Blain Kenney. “We’re pretty much a cowboy store.” But while Panhandle carries all the leather and tools you’ll need for building or repairing a saddle or a pair of boots or chaps, they also sell and distribute hardware, including buckles, conchos, trigger snaps, zipper parts, rivets and rings. Their extensive line of leather care, dyes, and glue products runs the gamut from Fiebings Reliable Burnishing Ink and Fiebings Frankel Stitching Wax (and 32 other Fiebings products) to Big Bend Leather Conditioner and Barge All-Purpose Cement.
Jim Blain Kenney was working with horses in Amarillo in the waning years of the last century when a sharp-eyed friend from Carlsbad, Joe Williams, called with a business opportunity in the leather industry. “It started with a fellow named Herman Smith,” says Jim Blain, “who had been in the leather business forever, it seemed. He started out with Hagendorn Leather and Shoe Findings in Dallas and Fort Worth. In fact, he was married to Mr. Hagendorn’s daughter.”
After Hagendorn was sold to Southern Leather, Herman Smith moved to Lubbock, Texas, and started a company called Plains Leather. Then he sold Plains to Southern Leather and Gary Miller, signing a non-compete agreement as part of the deal. When the agreement ended, Herman began selling shoe findings, cowboy boot heels and other items out of his garage.
Before long, the fledgling business gravitated to a station wagon, bringing the supplies to clients, and a warehouse soon followed. When tragedy struck, and Herman Smith and his wife died in a house fire, the established enterprise Panhandle Leather went on the market.
“We bought it in 1999,” Jim Blain continues, “and we knew right away it was a good business. We expanded the routes, sending trucks through our part of Texas and into Oklahoma, New Mexico and Colorado. That continued for seven or eight years, and then fuel prices started getting so high that we discontinued the truck routes and started doing more shipping to customers.
“We do sell through our website,” he adds, “but I’m big on visiting with the customers whether in person here at our shop or by phone. I call most of them at least once a month to let ‘em know about special deals we have and just to keep up with how Panhandle Leather can fit into their program. The internet is handy and everything, but a website can be kind of a frigid medium. If you don’t at least talk to a customer, you don’t really know their needs. We have customers now in states as far away as New Hampshire and Washington, and while we’re grateful for the business, we don’t really have any idea of what they’re doing. We don’t really know how we can best assist them with their business. There’s nothing better than having a personal relationship with customers.”
While Panhandle Leather maintains that warm, personal tradition of doing business, there have been changes through the years. “Our inventory has definitely changed,” Jim Blain says. “We’ve generally shifted from more shoe findings and boot and shoe repair to more saddle and strap leather. We’re real big on made-in-the-USA and there’s not much sole cutting being done in America anymore. Westfield Tanning and Howes Tannery were the last two sole leather tanners in the U.S., and they both closed down around 2005. Gene Hester retired around 2008. He had been in the shoe findings business forever, selling Amazona cowboy boot heels, rubber full soles, half soles, crepe, soling sheets and toplift sheets. Keystone Leather still does some sole cutting, but we have to get most of our sole leather from Argentina, Brazil and Mexico. We cut full and half soles here. We specialize in heavy weight, geared to boot and shoe repair. But with all the pre-made stuff coming in from China, Pakistan and India, there’s been a decline in the boot and shoe repair business.”
Still, Jim Blain sees a bright horizon. “In the last five to ten years, there’s been a big increase in young people getting into the leatherwork business. They might have made belts in high school, say, or pocket wallets. And they keep doing it in college. It starts out as just a hobby for some extra dollars, but then it turns into a business, whether it’s somebody out punching cows or sitting at a desk job somewhere. It’s a real refreshing thing to see – all of a sudden you have all these talented carvers, building belts, wallets, day planners, all kinds of things. That’s where our future is.”
In the leather department, Panhandle maintains an inventory of standards like calf skin but also offers a variety that includes roan goat, Tibetan lamb, elk, mission pig, ostrich, kangaroo, horse butt and more. Providers include bedrock American companies like Hermann Oak and Nugget. Barry King and C. S. Osborne provide most of the tools. Clendenin Brothers are a major source for rivets, trim nails, etc., and D. B. Gurney of Massachusetts is their go-to for specialty cut tack and nails.
Panhandle Leather sets up at three trade shows a year, all operated within the context of ranch rodeos. In May, you can find them at the Abilene (Texas) Western Heritage Classic Ranch Rodeo, and each July they’re at the Texas Ranch Roundup in Wichita Falls, a program that benefits the Boy’s Ranch. The biggest annual event they attend is the Working Ranch Cowboy Ranch Rodeo in Amarillo. This year it takes place from November 11-14. You can also visit with Jim Blain and his team at Panhandle Leather in Amarillo. “We’re at the corner of Amarillo Blvd. and Western Street,” says Jim Blain. “Come on by, bring a pattern and look stuff over.”
Working alongside Jim Blain and his wife Beth are Buz Sickler, Nathan Vidmar, Ashley Terrell and Wheatly Stevens. “We all work together,” says Jim Blain, “and Beth makes us lunch every day. It’s a good team.”
Panhandle Leather Co.
4104 Amarillo Blvd
Amarillo, TX 79106