Chapel Hill Leather Shop

| January 6, 2012

The stairs of 133 1/2 East Franklin Street, leading up to the Chapel Hill Leather Shop.

As a child, one of my favorite places to visit was the Chapel Hill Leather Shop at 133 1/2 East Franklin Street.

The Chapel Hill Leather Shop was owned and operated by David Honigmann, though in those days, most people affectionately called him simply the “Leather Man.” It was sandwiched between Alexander Julian’s clothing store called Alexander’s Ambition and the N.C. Cafeteria, at 133 ½ East Franklin Street. There was a narrow door that led you up steep wooden stairs, and down that hallway to the right was the Leather Shop — one big room, packed from floor to ceiling with hand-made leather goods. I can clearly remember the smell of the freshly tanned cowhides, which wafted all the way out to the street below.

The first time I went there was back in 1977, when I was seven years old. My Dad was shopping for a new pair of sandals, and my brother and I went with him. As kids, every trip we took to Franklin Street felt new and exciting, as it was constantly bustling with activity. As I entered the shop, the first thing I noticed was the big, 8’ worktable covered in sandals at various stages of production, lots of metal tools and jars of glue. There were two big windows that faced the little houses that used to be on Rosemary Street. Looking around, the sheer number of leather goods was dizzying. Sandals lined the shelves, bags and hats hung on the walls, along with belts, wallets, pouches, belt pouches, watch bands, briefcases, bracelets and hanging cowhides waiting patiently to be crafted into something.

Bags, Cowhides & Belts

The main reason that my Dad, and all of David’s many loyal customers, decided to buy sandals at the Chapel Hill Leather Shop, was that each sandal David sold was custom fit. It didn’t matter if your feet were big or small, (he made huge-sized sandals for many UNC basketball players), different sizes or shapes, or if your legs were different lengths. He would not only make sandals that fit your feet perfectly, but also make walking in them more comfortable than any other shoe could.

David explained to me how he would help a customer purchase a pair of sandals. “As people would come in, we’d have some samples on the table to choose from. I’d steer people toward the basics that worked the best — the right number of straps that I knew would be comfortable. But I wouldn’t push too hard if they wanted something else.”

My Dad's original pair of sandals that he bought from the Chapel Hill Leather Shop in 1977. Thirty-five years later and they are still in great shape!

The day we visited, my Dad selected the style of sandal he wanted – a simple design with no strap around the big toe. David had him take off his shoes and stand on a piece of leather so he could trace his feet. (When he first opened the shop in 1964, David had his customers stand on a yellow legal pad to make a pattern from, but after about five years of that, he decided to skip that step and just trace feet directly on the leather itself. It left a little ink outline on the sandal, which would fade over time.)

Then, depending on the style of the sandal and shape of the foot to be fitted, David would determine the exact placement of the straps and nails, and how much glue would be needed to secure the shoe together. A typical pair of these custom-made sandals sold for about $15.00 in 1977.

It was the exceptional quality of the craftsmanship and individual customer service that made the Chapel Hill Leather Shop so successful. David’s skill and attention to detail on each product they sold was unsurpassed. They guaranteed their work, and most repairs and adjustments were done for free. As a testament to their high-caliber workmanship, my Dad still wears his sandals every summer, and thirty-five years later, they are still the most comfortable pair of shoes he owns!

A Robin Hood-style hat and knife sheath, made by my brother, my Dad and me from scraps from the Chapel Hill Leather Shop, circa 1977.

But the fondest childhood memory I have of the Chapel Hill Leather Shop, is that often David would fill a huge barrel with leather scraps and place it out on the sidewalk of Franklin Street for anyone to take. If we were fortunate enough to be passing by when David put the barrel out, my brother and I would take as many scraps as we could carry home, where with the help from Dad, we would proceed to make Robin Hood hats, bracelets, knife sheaths and any other thing we could invent. Amazingly, my Dad still has a large bag of David’s leather scraps from the 1970’s downstairs in his workshop! When I asked why he kept them all these years, he simply said, “You don’t ever throw away good leather.”  Those scraps were our treasures, and when the Chapel Hill Leather Shop finally closed its doors in 1984, Chapel Hill lost one of its precious treasures.

This amazing Leather Man has an equally amazing life story. Click here to read the Chapel Hill Recorder article: “The Leather Man.”

Category: Places

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