What do handcrafted leather saddles, leather-working tools and Rhinelander have in common? Since 1990, the answer is Leather Crafters and Saddlers Journal. While the Northwoods home of the Hodag may seem an improbable location to publish this niche magazine, the story, like many, has an unlikely beginning.
Charil Ries was in high school when her father sold his business, Ries Tire Service. She remembers him driving her mother crazy because he wasn’t working. Bill Ries had tinkered with leather working as a Boy Scout, and was about to have his interest rekindled.
“He found these tools in the basement and was, like ‘oooh… look at these…’ Dad was a collector and started collecting more and more tools,” Charil recalled. “He also put ads in the paper looking for old leather-working tools and information on leather working. He found out about a leatherworkers convention in Chicago, so he and my mother went.”
It was 1990. Leather Crafters and Saddlers Journal, which was started in 1956 and had gone by the names Leather Craftsman, The Craftsman, and Make it with Leather, had just gone bankrupt. Again.
“The leather club members at the convention were sad because they had just learned that the magazine had gone defunct again and would be no more,” Charil said. “He looked at my mom and said, ‘should we buy the magazine?’ and she responded, ‘well you have to do something!’”
And something they did. Publishing the magazine out of their home, by hand, the couple had to start everything from scratch, including creating a subscription base. Bill also began a trade show in Sheridan, Wyoming which next month celebrates 22 years.
“It was the brainchild of my dad and saddle maker Don King. They wanted to create this space where people could come together and share ideas – about saddle making, about leather working. A place where they could buy everything they need,” according to Charil. “It was a kind of renegade idea because at that time, the early 90s, saddle making was dying out, skills were being lost, and no one was sharing ideas or talking about how they were doing things. Artists were very protective of their style and everyone thought he was crazy.” As a testament to his foresight, the Sheridan trade show has 60 vendors, 110 booths, and an entire town full of attendees.
Bill Ries died in 2010; Charil Ries and her husband, Ralph Solome, bought the business from her mother two years ago, when she retired. Charil had been around the magazine since the beginning, but perhaps not enough to realize what she and Ralph were getting into. The heart and soul of the industry was literally dying.
“We were losing subscriptions,” she said. “But we were fortunate to get a phone call from one of our contributors who said, ‘Here’s what you gotta do – gotta change a few things.’ And that’s scary. We had to go back to the drawing board and say, what’s gonna make a 25-year old pick this up.”
After a lot of research and a redesign, today the full color, bi-monthly magazine has just shy of 6,000 subscribers in 35 countries. In addition to the Sheridan trade show, the couple also sponsors a southwest trade show in Prescott, Arizona, and is in the midst of planning the first ever European trade show. A German major in college, Charil says she has always wanted to hold a show in Germany so she could speak to people. Ralph and Charil traveled there in August to test the waters and found they weren’t getting the love they wanted from the German people. Introduced to owners of a wholesale company in Firminy, France, the decision to go forward with plans for a trade show in September, 2015 was made.
“We’re doing this to spread the word that this art is not dead, and there are other people in the world doing it, and to bring them together,” Charil explained. “Just like the idea my dad had in 1994, when they started the trade show in Sheridan. People thought he was crazy and was a renegade, and it would never work, no one would come. That’s probably what we’re up against in Europe.”
Interestingly, while the craft is popular around the world, the artists tend to stick with the original styles.
“Western art is huge in Japan,” Ralph said. “A lot of the best western carvers are in Asia. They source their leather from the U.S., but make their own tools. The Japanese go absolutely crazy for the western carving styles.” People have told the team behind the Leather Crafters and Saddlers Journal they are the glue in the industry; there is no other publication like it in the world. This is a how-to publication with a little bit of human interest. Very much like the story of how the Ries family bought a magazine and revived an American craft.