Lancaster leather maker crafts wallets for members of new Congress

LNP newspaper
Michael Glick of Black Bear Leather, speaks from his work space about making wallets for members of the U.S. Congress on Friday, Oct. 30, 2020 in Lancaster, Pa. (Suzette Wenger/LNP/LancasterOnline via AP)

LANCASTER — When members of the 117th Congress are sworn in in Washington, D.C., this January, each will receive a new electronic voting card, as well as a small leather wallet to keep the card in.

For members of Congress, the black leather, hand-stitched wallets and voting card each contains will become part of their permanent personal effects.

For the Lancaster leather maker who produced them, having the wallets in the hands – and pockets – of lawmakers will be an enduring testament to his craftsmanship, as well as his ability to capitalize on a fortunate encounter with an influential customer.

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“This opportunity is an absolute honor and a privilege,” said Michael Glick, owner of Black Bear Leather.

Glick made 375 wallets for the order at his retail shop/studio at 317 N. Queen St., where he cut the leather, hand-stitched the seams and used a small hand-tool to round each edge of the wallet, spending an estimated 70 minutes on each one.

Michael Glick of Black Bear Leather, works in his shop where he has been making wallets for members of the U.S. Congress on Friday, Oct. 30, 2020 in Lancaster, Pa. (Suzette Wenger/LNP/LancasterOnline via AP)

Glick shipped the completed order in late October, capping an effort that wasn’t the most lucrative work he’s ever done, but which occupied him during a time when most of his typical sales had stopped because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I haven’t done a job this big before, and they had a budget they had to stick with. With this quantity, it works out. Had it been not Congress, I don’t know if I would have gone forward with it,” he said.

Glick, a 35-year Lancaster city resident who grew up in southern Lancaster County, launched a small leather making business in 2014.

Glick doesn’t have any formal training as a leather craftsman and said he got into it after buying few hand tools and playing around with some leather. He watched YouTube videos to learn more techniques, subsequently discovering that his grandfather and great-grandfather had done some leather making of their own. While the family history wasn’t the reason he started began making leather products, Glick says it motivated him to turn the craft into a business.

Today, Glick crafts leather wallets, handbags, belts and other products from rolls of leather he buys from a tannery near State College.

In early 2016, Glick opened a small stand at Smucker Village in Intercourse, near Kitchen Kettle Village, but soon afterwards started selling wares at Eastern Market in Washington, D.C.

Glick went to college in D.C., where he earned a political science degree from American University and then spent several years as a Congressional aide. So, he was familiar with the outdoor public market near the U.S. Capitol, guessing correctly that it would be a good place to sell his products.

“Eastern Market is consistent business and traffic. It’s been really successful,” said Glick, who estimates about 80 percent of his sales come from there. “I don’t think I would have been able to keep going without that.”

One D.C. customer was Cheryl Johnson, who Glick recalls got a monogrammed wallet in May and then came back a couple months later to see if he could help her out of a bind at work. Johnson is the clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives, an officer of the House of Representatives chosen by members to serve as the official record keeper. Her duties include distributing voting cards for official House votes, and the cards have been given out at the beginning of each new Congress in small leather wallets.

But this year, the coronavirus pandemic caused a disruption for the normal supplier of the wallets and Johnson was trying to find someone new to make them, according to a spokesman for her office.

Johnson asked Glick to submit some samples, and selected him for the job after being assured he could deliver a quality job in time, the spokesman said.

“They sent a sample of what they had before, and I pretty much just copied it,” said Glick, who learned of the job in July. “Big difference is this is all hand-stitched and the leather is from a tannery here in Pennsylvania.”

Local craftsmanship

For Glick, the order came during a time when the coronavirus pandemic had closed Eastern Market, so he had the extra time needed to do the job. Glick has one part-time helper in the shop, but is otherwise a one-person operation.

“I haven’t really been open and going to D.C., so I haven’t had to make inventory to keep up, so I could focus on making this,” he said. “The whole situation was very serendipitous, because it filled in a slow period.”

The circumstances also made it worthwhile to deliver the wallets for $25 each when he would typically sell something like that for around $80.

“It’s a substantial markdown,” he said, before adding: “The great thing with something like this is I ship it off and I don’t have to sell it. That money is now here, and I don’t have to worry about it.”

Before they are given to members of Congress, the wallets will be embossed with the name of members and the seal of the House of Representatives. Only 375 new wallets were made because some of the 435 members will get wallets left over from last year.

U.S. Rep. Lloyd Smucker, a Republican whose congressional district includes Lancaster County, will be among those getting the new ones.

“I think it’s great,” said Smucker, who just won re-election for a third term. “It’s not surprising to me that the clerk would choose a constituent to manufacture a product like this. I think our area is known for our craftsmanship.”

Smucker said the voting card doubles as Congressional identification, so he will have the wallet that carries it with him all the time. He was delighted to learn one of his constituents made his new one.

“He should be proud of it,” Smucker said. “I’m looking forward to seeing one of them.