June 02, 2011
The artistry of a small business in San Francisco
Posted by ToddHenderson

Although I spend lots of my time these days thinking about business, my interaction with businesses is mostly as a customer. In a former career, I spent time behind the curtain, but as a law professor, I read and profess about business more than I observe it up close and personal. But yesterday, I got a rare treat to see what it is really like to be a small entrepreneur in America. 

I'm in San Francisco for the week, and I took the afternoon to go shopping for a bag for my wife, who is home wrangling our three children without me. A friend recommended a company here who makes "heirloom luggage," so I thought I would check it out. I walked about 20 blocks through the Mission District and arrived at a nondescript building with no storefront. I expected a retail establishment, although the neighborhood didn't exactly bring to mind the Magnificent Mile or 5th Avenue. What I found instead was a revelation.

There was a small sign on the door that said to ring the doorbell. I did and the door opened to a factory floor run by Myron and his wife, Kari. These two artists, along with three other workers, hand build every bag, duffel, briefcase, suitcase, and wallet right there on Folsom Street. Without missing a beat, Myron, a bulldog of a man with shoulders like a lineman for the Bears, took me on a lengthy tour of his entire operation. I saw where the animal hides arrived from Argentina, I heard about the selection of hides, the differences in grains, and watched as he used a modified skateboard with heavy weights attached to work the leather to the incredible softness they are able to achieve. (Seeing Myron was in his 60s or 70s, I decided to pick up the board to give it a go, and I could barely lift it from the table.) I was then showed how they hand dye every bag, with fountain pen ink. The pride in which Myron and his family regard the work they do and the artistry in which they do it was truly admirable.

Myron also told me what it is like to be a small business in San Francisco and America these days. The regulations here drive up costs, which makes his business tough. When I asked why he didn't hire more staff, since a made-to-order bag takes 8 weeks to deliver, he told me there was too much uncertainty. Health care is too expensive, and he doesn't know what costs are coming down the road. And getting good people is difficult when your standards are so high.

But this is a success story, not a lament. Myron and his "family" are the backbone of our business community -- small employers making the highest quality products. Anyone out there using a Tumi bag (or worse) you owe it to yourself to buy a bag from Glaser Designs. The travel writer Paul Theroux recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal that these bags are the best in the world. After seeing how they are made and meeting the artists that make them, there is absolutely no doubt about that in my mind.




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