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Emilie Springer: Meet Ivan Heimbuch

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Emilie Springer/KBBI
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     As the summer season slows to a close on the spit, Ivan Heimbuch has only a few more days of his first year open as Alaska Leather Company near the Klaar’s shops and Black Fish Gallery.  Just the first year of the store, but he’s been doing the leather work for almost nine years.  Here’s how he started: “It starts in South Africa, actually.  I was down there and would be walking to these places I had to go every day and I would pass by this one store that had these snakeskin boots or ostrich boots…” He trails off and I can’t help but ask, “What were you doing in South Africa?”
    Well, that was back in the days he was modeling. 

But back to the leather.

“So, I wanted something cool to bring home but I wasn’t really sure about bringing snakeskin boots back to Alaska or Oregon so I got the artist to take me out to his workshop and see what else he had and how they made it. I thought maybe luggage bags would be a good thing to bring back.  I got to know his craftsmen a little bit.  I have no idea how long he had been in the trade because he didn’t speak very good English.  He was from Nigeria.”
     Ivan talked about where some of the other craftsmen were from, the various nations and what he had to do to communicate which bags wanted from the studio. But, instead of just purchasing them, Ivan wanted to learn how to make them.  “Those first bags took a lot of time because I didn’t know what I was doing yet,” he said, “I took those home and I thought the craft was really fun but I didn’t really know anything about leather or the business of leather at all.”
     So, when it came time to go commercial fishing in the summer (Cook Inlet, about 2011) he told himself, “if I make X amount of dollars fishing this year, I’m going to throw all of that towards making a business of this.”  He met that goal!  And, that’s how he got started.
 
     Although the shop wasn’t actually open while we were doing the interview, Ivan left the door open and a few people trickled into browse.  One customer approaches to ask about a bag and Ivan, the salesman, quickly explains: “this bag has all brass hardware and there are a couple pockets on the inside that seem to work.  You can see the walnut color leather with chocolate straps goes well together, it just kind of works in harmony.  What do you think, is that the one for you?”  With just a quick display, he has the customer sold!  “I had this hide kind of sitting around all summer and couldn’t quite decide what to do with it, once the fall came around, it just kind of made itself, you know?” He further convinces the customer on the unique quality of the bag and that it’s the right choice for his mother’s birthday present.

     So, when Ivan finished his fishing season he started to try and develop a trade with South Africa for Ostrich leather.  That took me a little of bit of research: yes, this is leather from ostrich birds. We did not talk much about leather origin but he did mention that it is a major commercial item for the nation.  The first year of his operation he says was “kind of meager, just a few wallets and a couple belts.  It definitely didn’t work very well in the that first year.” Ten years later and he says it takes about two hours to make a reasonable size handbag.  And now, he gets most of his leather from Texas, California and Chicago.
     He talks about the learning process, “I feel like I’m always learning new ways to do things.  Sometimes even after I made something for the 100th time, I’ll find a new trick and ask myself why I haven’t tried that before” he says.

     I ask what typical day looks like for production.  “I did four bags one day this summer and that was kind of pushing it. And, the next day I really couldn’t have done it again.  You have to mix up the size of the products.”  He is developing new items and exploring new product ideas, too, but this summer with the shop opening for the first year he didn’t make quite as many new items.”  Before this he was producing wholesale or privately for people in town or elsewhere.  This summer, he was ushered into the spit community by Leslie Klaar.  He bought the building and was able to set up the shop the way he wanted to do it.  He says the summer market was amazing, “it has been crazy busy!”

     He ends by talking about other talented leather artists in Homer.  “I think it’s kind of cool that it’s an older art and there aren’t a lot of resources for learning.  I’ve found three or four other folks in town who have been really helpful and I’d like to see us all push each other and get better and better.”

     What’s his favorite item to make? “Alligator or beaver wallets.”  

 

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