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.
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 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.
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.”
Native Leather, 203 Bleecker Street, New York City.