By Loretta Gillespie
The Cullman Times
Gary Reid of Cullman has always enjoyed working with leather, but it was an old pair of boots that got him started on what has become his signature craft – fashioning purses and other accessories from old or discarded cowboy boots.
“All my life, when I saw something I liked but couldn’t afford, I just tried making it myself,” said Reid, a retired Welti elementary school teacher.
“As a kid I made a lot of bridles and saddlebags,” he recalled. “Later, I made them for my son, Zeb.”
That “cowboy” pride in his work and his determination has made the 67-year-old Cullman native famous for his craft from here to Texas, where his boot-purses have become a very popular item.
About seven years ago, Reid’s sister saw such a purse in an exclusive gift shop in the Denver airport. She told him how it was made and he just sat down with an old boot and “piddled” until he had created what she described.
He gave her the purse as a gift and was surprised when she called him and said that someone in the Atlanta area had approached her and made her an offer she couldn’t refuse, so she sold her purse.
That gave him an excuse to make another one.
Reid got a lot of encouragement from his wife, Charlotte, and his daughter, Amy, who proudly showed off the purses he made for them. Often women would comment and ask where they got the unusual accessory. This gave Reid the confidence to start looking around for an outlet for his handiwork.
First though, he needed a supply of boots. “I met a man at Mule Day in Columbia, Tenn., who managed several big boot warehouses. His headquarters were in Crossville, Tenn.,” recalled Reid. “I approached him and asked if he ever had boots that he couldn’t sell for some reason. He said that he often had mis-matched boots and he sent me a box of 20, not all pairs, sight unseen.”
Since then, Reid has ordered up to 200 boots per shipment, while still scrounging yard sales, consignment and thrift stores, from friends, and by word of mouth from people who’ve met him at shows, or from friends of Zeb’s who know what he does with the boots.
His business has grown, in part, due to the interest of an enterprising Fort Worth businesswoman by the name of Patricia Eltiste.
Eltiste saw Reid’s purses at a craft show in 2010, and since then has sold them all over central Texas. “She has ordered over 100 purses,” said Reid. “I give her a lot of credit for my success.”
When Eltiste returned to Texas with her purse, men would often stop her in Kroger’s and at the mall, asking about her purse, wanting to order one for their wives. “I got in touch with Gary and asked if he would be interested in selling them to me for retail,” she said. “He thought about it for a while and called me back, saying that he would do it ‘as long as it wasn’t a job’.”
Eltiste says that Reid is one of the most humble men she has ever met. “That is one of his most endearing traits, that and the pride he takes in his work,” she said. “His purses have given us a foot in the door to several big, invitation-only shows on military bases, airlines, and for the phone company.”
Eltiste requested that Reid make some notepads, or “pad-folio’s”. Those are big sellers for Eltiste, too. She also requested wine caddies, made from a single boot, which have a round bottom, perfect for displaying on a counter or table top.
“Some of the smaller purses are what I call ‘catch-all’s’,” explained Reid. “They are made from kids’ boots and hold eyeglasses, pens and loose change.”
He fashioned his wife’s favorite boot-purse from a pattern drawn with a crockpot lid. “I just needed something round for the bottom,” he laughed. “That was perfect. The purse turned out kind of like a bucket, and holds a lot more stuff.”
There are several variations of purses, from the “bucket” design that Charlotte Reid favors, to the double-sided purses and smaller totes.
Reid did his first show at the Farm/City show at the McGukin Civic Center in Cullman in 2006. He did so well with the novelty purses that he brought his wares to the Cullman Christmas Arts and Crafts Fair the very next month.
“Carrie Taylor, who owns Three Pears Shoe Outlet, saw Amy’s purse and asked for some to put in her shop,” said Reid. “Since then I’ve kept her stocked with them.”
Reid signs and dates each pair of boots he crafts. He reckons that he’s probably made well over 400 purses since he started.
He buys leather from an Amish harness maker in Ethridge, Tenn., for the bottoms of his purses.
“I also buy the silver conchos for ornamentation from the Amish. I use braided belts for the stitching on the purses, purchased from yard sales and thrift stores,” he said. “I recycle the belts because that leather is more supple than new.”
Over the years, many people have brought Reid their own boots, something dear to their hearts (See Sue Robinson’s story in The Cullman Times’ Lifestyle archives). Reid calls these “memorial purses” and takes special care with them, knowing how much they mean to people.
He works with his hands and a few simple tools. Nothing he creates from the recycled boots is machine manufactured, other than the original part of some of the boots he uses.
Using a pocket knife, an ice pick, several German-made leather punches, an awl, needle- nose pliers, a ruler and a yard stick, he sits and fashions his creations in the quiet of his workshop, or on his back porch. He says working with leather is a wonderful form of therapy.
Normally, Reid works on more than one purse at a time, but says that it probably takes between four and five hours to make a purse from a pair of boots.
He makes both single and double purses, which range in price from $50 - $150 with boots that he furnishes. “I do custom work for people using their own boots for $65 each,” he said.
Normally he can work up a custom order within a week to 10 days.
“Invariably, wherever I show my purses, someone will come up and ask if I can make them an Alabama wallet. I always tell them that I can if they can bring me an Alabama boot,” he chuckled.
The first custom order Reid made was for Patricia as a gift for her aunt in New York City. “She brought me a very high-end pair of Lucchese boots that were like new. It hurt me a little to cut them up because I thought someone could have gotten some good out of them as boots,” he said.
“This whole experience has been heartwarming to me,” said Reid, true to his unassuming nature.
Reid doesn’t travel the craft show circuit. Thanks to Eltiste, he doesn’t have to. He does, however, take his purses to Oktoberfest and to Howard Tinney’s Registered Santa Gertrudis sale in Hanceville twice a year.
“I also do the ranch rodeo and some other registered cow sales, and I still go to the Christmas Arts and Crafts show at the civic center every year, but I rarely leave Cullman County,” he said.
Gary Reid is a prime example of good ol’ American ingenuity. He used what he knew how to do, using his own hands and his talent for working with leather, and has made a name for himself with his creations.
Gary Reid is at 256-339-7236
One Sister Two Sister
Fort Worth, TX