BY ADAM KENT-ISAAC
Despite the preponderance of synthetic materials, leather never seems to go out of style. Maybe it’s the rich and earthy smell of it, or its texture, or the fact that properly treated, it can stand up to almost anything Mother Nature can dish out. Whatever the reasons, leather holds a deep and primal appeal. Nobody knows this better than Mike Long of Long Leather Works, who’s spent over 35 years working with the material.
Long came to Bloomington to attend Indiana University in 1970, then lived in Florida where he got his start in leather at a sandal shop. “I asked the owner if he needed any help, and he showed me how to make a pair of sandals, and I was off. That was 1977,” he says. Long realized he had a knack for leatherworking and began to branch out to handbags and accessories. Five years later, he moved back to Bloomington and set up shop.
He’s been in his current building, off Gordon Pike, for the past 19 years. “The best-kept secret in Bloomington,” jokes Long, who doesn’t advertise much locally, as most of his work comes from corporate contracts. In his workshop, with the help of his partner and several employees, they craft leather goods the old-fashioned way: by hand.
“We use techniques that aren’t used in the industry anymore,” says partner Paula Chambers. “Everything is made one at a time, not fabricated by machines out of bonded leather or sub-par materials. Everything we use is full-grain hide.” Different varieties include pig, buffalo, lizard, ostrich, goat, and stingray, all with different visual and tactile characteristics. “We even have a client in Alaska who sends us salmon skin,” says Long, who’s working on an eye patch for the Alaskan fisherman.
“It’s like Project Runway every day,” says Chambers. “We make some of the weirdest stuff.” A few eccentric items include a golf bag for a one-armed golfer, a case to hold 36-inch needles for Cook Pharmica, and an artificial leg for a Vietnam veteran.