Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Native Leather: A Place to Warm Your Hands and Cool Your Heels

Native Leather in New York City has belts and hats and everything leather
By Mitch Broder

Native Leather has a good reason for being in business in 2012:

It still hasn’t sold all the stuff it bought in 1967.

Of course, that doesn’t explain why it’s been able to stay in business for fifty years while most other Village leather stores of the sixties have not, but it does explain why you can theoretically buy a belt made in the summer of 2011 with a buckle made in the Summer of Love.

An assortment of hats at Native Leather in New York City
Chances are, you won’t see the boxes packed with sixties and seventies parts, since they’re packed behind the merchandise, which is packed in front of the walls. But the proprietors know where they are, and they know when to dig them out. And that may actually explain why they’ve been able to stay in business for fifty years.

Sandals for all foot sizes at Native Leather in New York City
They have clearly had a gift for staying sufficiently if warily ahead, yet fashionably if inadvertently behind, the popular taste. For customers still come in not only for leather belts but also for leather jackets, coats, vests, wallets, bags, hats, gloves, and sandals, which are modeled by gruesome false feet.

The management is not oblivious to contemporary looks, but it is also not inclined to get overstocked on them. “This is not Banana Republic,” says the store owner, Carol Walsh, “where next season everything’s going to be teal.”

Carol can trace that policy back to 1983, since that’s when she first took a job with the store. And for seasons before that she can always check with the sandal-maker, Dick Whalen, since he’s the guy who hired her, since he’s the guy who founded the store.

The Old New York message on the sign for Native Leather
Dick took his NYU business education to a basement on MacDougal Street, where he started making sandals in 1962. He enjoyed it, thanks in part to his work in bomb disposal in Korea: “That set you up,” he says. “Whatever you were gonna do in life couldn’t be as bad as that.”

The basement was the start of Native Leather, even though it was called The Britton Shop, and within months the shop moved to an efficiency on Sullivan Street. “It became a hangout,” Dick says. “There were other craftsmen on the street. We’d chip in and all eat dinner there.”

In ’69 the shop came to Bleecker, where it was renamed Natural Leather. Dick had meanwhile opened more stores including summer shops in Hyannis and Provincetown. In ’72, overwhelmed by his empire, he closed everything and took time off. He reopened the Bleecker Street shop and decided that one store was enough.

Belts of all colors and sizes, of course made out of leather at Native Leather in New York City
In the mid-sixties, Dick recalls, there were eighteen leather shops in the Village. By 1979, nearly all of them were gone. But the next year he doubled the size of his store. He says he simply had the best leather. That, and the patience to ride out the sandal-crushing rise of running shoes.

He ran the store till the mid-nineties, and then Carol took over. To celebrate, she gave the shop its latest name. These days leather is tough, she says. But the store is boosted by tourists looking for old hippie outposts, and by locals looking for sandals, hats, and belts.

She gave herself an unforeseen challenge, however, when she gave the store its new name. People see the name Native Leather, she says, “and they come in looking for headdresses.”

“I have Navajo belt buckles. I have Zuni belt buckles. I have Hopi belt buckles,” she says. “But that’s not because it’s called Native Leather. It’s because we sell belt buckles.”

Go ahead try on a leather hat at Native Leather in New York City
Hide out at Native Leather, 203 Bleecker Street, New York City.


  1. Those fake feet really are gruesome- yikes!

  2. Looks like a fun place to poke around. I love the Village.
    P.S. Those sandals look a lot like Israeli Nimrodim.

  3. Natalie Feb. 9, 2012February 9, 2012 at 10:37 PM

    Today I bought a very nice leather belt for my friend in Ghana. I am sure he will love it. Thanks to Carol and Jess for your "hospitality" and great service (my belt was constructed on the spot!). I will go back in a couple of weeks to get one of the leather pouch bags that will be perfect for carrying small amounts of cash when I go traveling next month.