Family unity is at the heart of leather workshop’s success.
By Lynn Ascrizzi
Brenneman’s Leather Goods is a family-run business based in Salisbury, Pennsylvania. The small borough, historically named Elk Lick Township, is a vital part of Somerset County, an area that is home to a large Amish community.
The leather workshop is beautifully situated beside a gravel road on unique, rural property that abuts thousands of acres of state forest. The shop is connected to the family’s two-story residence by a breezeway, which makes the morning commute for its occupants just a few short steps from their home to the workplace.
“It’s all connected,” said Floyd Brenneman, 47, who launched the wholesale leather goods business in 2000. “You’re always at work. We’re a very small family business and I feel blessed.”
His wife, Ada, and their two grown boys and two grown girls, work together in the impressive, neat-as-a-pin 4,200-square-foot shop. The business also hires a couple of part-time helpers from the community. And, about a half-dozen local folks lace the company’s wallets at their homes. In the immediate family, everyone pitches in and each one takes on a general task.
“Our youngest son, Jacob, 18, makes a lot of items such as keepers (belt loops) and putting snaps on belts. He fills in wherever needed. Our oldest daughter, Elizabeth, 26, does the staining on wallets and makes most of the wallets. She also takes care of wallet orders and assembling liners. We have a whole line of embossed wallet patterns — 90 different designs — deer, bears, horses, acorns, oak leaf florals and more. She decides what needs to be made.”
“Ervin, 25, does a lot of the cutting on the clicker and makes liners and whatever is needed,” he continued. “Magdalena, 22, fills in wherever needed, such as taking and processing orders and selecting inventory items. Ervin also does taxidermy work on the side. He’s big into hunting.”
“Ada does a lot of the packaging and writes invoices,” he added. “She works full time. Magdalena is our chief cook and bottle washer. It takes a lot of her time. They all like being part of the family business.”
Family breakfast is around 6:30 to 7 a.m. “I like to be in the shop between 7:30 and 8 a.m. We work leather late into the evening. I do a lot of the cutting leather into strips for belts, getting the batches of belts ready for further work,” he said.
Belts and wallets are their primary products. “Mostly belts. And we do a lot of wallets. We’re not into custom. We’re more of a production business. We’re not a retail store that is open to the public, although a few people come here to pick up orders, which is fine. It’s why we don’t have a sign. We’re strictly wholesale,” he explained.
It’s amazing to realize that the family’s cohesive, cooperative and rural way of life is only two hours and 45 minutes away by car from the nation’s hectic hub, Washington, D.C. In this regard, Brenneman shared an alarming incident that occurred without warning near his home and the Somerset County community.
“We’re about 30 miles from where Flight 93 crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. When that plane crashed, we heard it. It rattled the windows. It didn’t take long before we realized what it was,” he said of that tragic day on September 11th, 2001.
SURGE IN SALES
In 2020, the Covid pandemic momentarily set the business back on its heels, as it did for so many large and small businesses across the country. “We had a sharp decline for a couple of months, with the Covid shutdowns. A lot of our business was considered nonessential. Then, it picked up. Actually, we made up for it. By the end of the year, we were ahead,” Brenneman said.
“Business volume varies,” he explained. This past October, the workshop was making about 500 wallets a month and a lot more belts. “This year, 2021, is very busy. I’m not sure why. We keep expanding our customer base. We’re ahead in sales by about 60 percent over an average year. We’re so busy we just can’t keep up. If this surge keeps going, we’ll probably find a few more part-time helpers. Right now, sometimes we’re working crazy hours. Sometimes, we’re working as late as 10 or 11 at night.”
The December holiday season makes November their busiest month. “We try to keep inventory in stock, but we’re selling faster than we can make things. There are a lot of empty spaces on the shelf. Our turnaround time is longer than we’d like it to be. We try to turn around an order in one week to 10 days. Some supplies that I order take longer to get and are not as readily available as they once were.”
Their top priority is giving customers a high-quality product at a fair price, he pointed out. “We strive to use the best materials,” he said. Those interested can call the business to get their current price lists. They also offered a 21-page, full-color, well-organized free catalog. Their extensive leather belt line, for instance, is clearly presented — from heavyweight work belts, to casual, ranger and embossed. Belt colors include black, brown, dark brown and burgundy. Buckle choices are nickel-plated, solid brass and stainless steel. “We’re not making fashion belts, but belts for everyday wear,” he said.
Also displayed are dozens of styles of embossed leather billfolds, trifolds, checkbook covers and roper wallets, a selection that includes boot wallets and leather liner choices. And, a line of Northern Lites brand, soft leather purses and several novelty items, like key fobs, coin purses and decorative door hangers are also offered.
Products are basically manufactured by hand, but specific leather machines are used such as stitchers and strap cutters. Machines are air-powered. “We don’t use automated or computerized machines. A diesel runs the air compressor. Instead of making electricity, it makes compressed air. It works well,” he said.
To get the word out about their products they occasionally advertise, but sales mostly come through word of mouth. “People find us,” he added. “At a local festival this past October, a store representative from Delaware bought one of our belts at my dad’s retail store and got our information from them.” Belts are stamped on the back with the company name.
Over the years, the business has built an extensive mailing list. Customers include tack stores, shoe repair shops, western and menswear stores. Belts also are sold to several private label retail stores under their labels. “But mostly, we sell under our own brand,” he said.
Leather is sourced primarily from Wickett & Craig of Curwensville, Pennsylvania. “We use a lot of their English bridle leather. Our belts last a long time,” he noted. Other bridle leathers are also sourced, for instance, from Weaver Leather of Mount Hope, Ohio.
Brenneman’s launched into making wallets in 2005, after the company bought a leather wallet business. “It used to be called the Baker Company. Then, Troyer’s Leather of Fremont, Michigan, bought the business and made wallets for a number of years. We purchased the business from Troyer’s, which boosted our sales. We sold belts to their existing customers and their wallets to our belt customers.”
For the embossed sections of their wallets, natural veg-tan strap leather is used, which works well with embossing work, oils and dyes, he added.
“Working with leather is all I’ve ever done,” Brenneman said, reflecting on his boyhood in Salisbury. “I lived only three or four miles from where we live now. There were five of us growing up — two brothers and two sisters. I’m the oldest of the boys.”
Since boyhood, he had worked with his father, Mark Brenneman, who for 45 years owned and operated Mark’s Harness Shop in Salisbury. Now semi-retired, his father still stays active in the retail shop. One of his grandsons runs the business.
“My dad grew up on a farm, married and struck out on his own. His shop doesn’t make harness anymore, but he still sells it. The retail shop buys harness from other manufacturers that do saddle repair, saddles and tack. He taught me a lot about leatherwork and how to run a business.”
Twenty-one years ago, Brenneman also set out on his own to start a wholesale leather goods business. Today, he and his family are carrying the leather tradition forward. “We continue to grow,” he said.
Brenneman’s Leather Goods
Floyd Brenneman, owner, operator
658 Davis Road
Salisbury, PA 15558
All photographs are courtesy of Dee Durst