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Rebirth of an Ancient Yearning for Quality

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Not everyone is going global. Not everyone is scrambling to do more with less, and faster. Innovation can mean looking backward. “Labor,” Congress decreed without abiding consequence back in 1914, “is not a commodity.”

By example we have Randy Merrell. The important things in life, as he sees it, are family, faith and comfortable feet. In his Quonset hut workshop that smells of leather and wax, the three become one.

He leans over a table and wields a blade that is something of the knife and something of the scalpel, extracting mysterious patterns out of a chocolate-colored hide of a water buffalo calf. His movements are exact and just quicker than the eye can follow. It is as quiet here as he wants it to be, and he interrupts himself to speak.

“I don’t see that our country is,” he pauses, “well, it’s not whole. But, but I think there is something grass-roots going on. . . . “

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What is going on, if we pull back from one rock-cliff farming valley in eastern Utah, is the resurgence of the American craftsman.

From this supple hide, Merrell is creating a pair of custom-fitted cowboy boots. In two or three weeks he will finish and present them to a customer who has waited a year on a back-order list. Maker and wearer share a breathtaking expectation. These boots will fit, endure and satisfy like no others.

Merrell and his wife, and perhaps someday his four sons, are alone in the enterprise. But they are hardly unique in the desire to produce something by hand for reward of the soul.

While making boots, Merrell is also teaching boot-making. In a year, 30 or so eager men and women will be introduced to the craft during two-week sessions of the Merrell Institute of Bootmaking. That’s about as many boot makers as existed in all of America just a generation ago.

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Cutlery, bread, jewelry, furniture, glassware, ceramic tile, bicycles, confections, clothing, surf boards, beer, backpacks, cigars, spices, wrought iron, snowshoes, bound journals, mustards, musical instruments, briefcases, liqueurs, barbecue sauces, carpets, cheeses, wooden rowing dinghies, to name just some--all are coming to market in growing amounts from the hands of artisans, often at gratifying levels of quality, sometimes dazzlingly so. Just look at the expanding scores of specialty magazines on news racks.

“More people are going back to work with their hands than ever before. There has been a growing renaissance in the crafts for quite a few years,” said the much-honored dean of America’s craft movement, Sam Maloof.

Maloof has spent almost half a century building wooden furniture, piece by glorious piece. In his small workshop in a citrus grove of the Southern California city of Alta Loma, craftsmanship has reached such sublime refinement that Maloof was awarded a “genius” grant of $375,000 from the MacArthur Foundation.

American craftsmen and women never disappeared entirely, of course. But the assembly line claimed a heavy toll in their numbers and social relevance.

Beer Market Illustrates Rewards

In the 1960s, those who took up crafts were called dropouts. Today they are portrayed as individual curiosities. The collective vigor of their revival remains obscured by the din of promotion for mass-marketed internationally-produced goods, discount retailing and “image” advertising that so reign over daily commerce.

True, today’s craftsmen and women of America, even by broadest definition, barely register as an economic force. Or so say the marketing experts.

But consider beer. At the turn of the century, practically every American city of any size had a local brewery. Each brew master was a craftsman with a personalized understanding of how beer should taste.

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Prohibition killed all but a handful of regional breweries and the well-known industrial giants. Generations since have come to know American beer as a uniform, thin and aggressively carbonated lager.

Then, in recent years, craft returned to beer, beginning with the microbreweries in Northern California. By 1996, the Beverage Marketing Corp. counted 400 U.S. microbreweries and 650 brewpubs, where specialty beer is made and sold on the premises. The variety and craftsmanship of some of these ales, pilseners, stouts, porters, meads and lambics is noble.

“Highly styled, highly differentiated beers” that establish “intimacy between brewer and consumer"--the description from Paul Shipman, president of Red Hook Brewery in Seattle, a onetime neighborhood concern that is selling craft beer nationally.

Specialty beers still account for less than 3% of the American market. But that represents a one-year growth of nearly a third. And about two-thirds of a gallon of specialty beer is consumed for every adult in America, up fivefold in just five years.

Half a dozen magazines now reach those who make and consume craft beer, shelves of books have been published and schools and consultants compete to train more brew masters. We need only think of what artisans did to American wine to see where this story may be headed.

The industrial titans of beer responded with their own so-called specialty brands. They formed partnerships with the most prosperous of microbreweries. Now millions of Americans understand there is much, much more to beer than the label.

Weary Laborers Lead Backlash

Market share, however, offers but the coldest appraisal of the artisan. There are subterranean urges to draw women and men out of factories and offices and push them toward the workbench or recipe cabinet.

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“People want something that’s real and personal. They come here from all over the country to study. And they all say the same thing. They seem to be feeling almost an urgency to build something of value and worth. It seems to be coming from way down in their souls.”

Speaking is Randy Merrell’s wife and partner in boot-making, Lou-Ann. She does the decorative stitching, the signet of Western boots.

“Today, seniority and loyalty mean nothing in the workplace. Our students come here not wanting to trust their life anymore to someone else.”

The Merrells ask students to write down why they want to be boot makers. Typical responses: To escape the politics of employment, to make something individual and of quality, to regain control of one’s life.

So they come, a recovering alcoholic, a ballet dancer, a back-country guide, a former California highway patrolman and all kinds of computer technicians, professionals and business executives. Some are looking for a new start, some a second career, some a diversion. Almost one in six is a woman.

The demand is such that at least two other competing institutes have started in recent years.

During two weeks in Utah with Merrell, students learn the basics by making boots for their own feet. Those who stick with it will spend the rest of their lives perfecting their skills. One man undertook his studies with uncommon diligence, laboring nights, and walked away with seven pairs.

“Can I say this? He was a polygamist. I guess he had to be efficient,” laughs Lou-Ann Merrell.

Expectation of ‘Meaningful’ Lives

At whatever pace, true artisans work at human scale. This is a source of contentment, a handhold against the vertigo of you-know-what:

“People are retreating from whirlwinds--the whirlwinds of production demands and the whirlwinds of an unstable economy,” said Barry Glassner, chair of sociology at USC.

In his 1994 book “Career Crash,” Glassner followed dozens of Americans as they redirected their lives, either because they were laid off or could no longer bear the rat race. They were searching for what was supposed to be the American dream, and what the best of factories and offices 15 years ago promised: economic stability and the emotional, creative rewards that come from feeling “they were making use of their talents and contributing something they considered of worth.”

Glassner and others see a strong generational component to the revival of the artisan.

“Unlike the generation prior, baby boomers--and by that I mean those from middle and wealthy classes--were raised to have ‘meaningful’ lives,” said Glassner. “And that remains a very strong expectation.”

In the late 1960s and 1970s, this drive sent some into the hills to simplify their lives by making jewelry, fabrics, candles and the like. Society laughed at them, and they laughed back. Now this generation is doing it again, and for much the same reason. But the laughter has died down.

Ann Reiss is a craft soap maker in Berea, Ky. “My husband says that all us aging hippies who had our dreams in the 1960s and ‘70s are finally tired of being part of the big rush.”

From Philadelphia via Florida, the Reiss family ended up in rural Appalachia “with a wood stove, chickens, the whole thing. This is home. We could never go back.”

For the like-minded, Berea is practically Mecca. Berea College has emphasized regional crafts in its curriculum since before the Civil War. Today, as part of tuition payments, students are asked to apprentice with established local artisans or at one of five college craft industries--blacksmithing, weaving, pottery, wood shop or broom-making.

The Old Town streets of the 10,000-population community are lined with crafts shops. People drive from all over the region to buy furniture, candles, quilts, glassware and so on. More than 150 Berea artisans are members of the Kentucky Guild of Artistry and Craftsmen.

“Today, our lifestyle is supported by our income, instead of our income having to stay up with our lifestyle,” Reiss said.

From Quantity to Quality

Not all artisans can make such a claim. Some work with every tool technology can offer, and others work in steadfast defiance of it. Either way, craftsmanship is costly.

“The only kind of labor which gives the workingman a title to all its fruits is that which he does as his own master,” Pope Pius XI observed in 1930.

Only for some, though, is the harvest bountiful. The consumer’s relative thinking about price and value does not favor the individual and the workbench.

Furniture maker Maloof commands five-figure prices for his chairs and can never make enough to answer demand. For others, the balance between satisfaction and survival is more delicate. Even if you decide that success is not entirely about money, it is something about money.

Cowboy boot-maker Merrell has seen the question from two sides. If his name seems slightly familiar, perhaps you are a backpacker. After specializing in Western boots for half a dozen years, producing about 75 pairs in a boom year, Merrell was challenged by a friend during a trek into Utah’s red rock canyon country.

“He asked, ‘Do you make hiking boots?’ I said, ‘I don’t know,’ ” Merrell recalls.

Thus began the revolution in lightweight hiking boots. Merrell also pioneered the use of Velcro instead of laces. For five years, he was a globe-trotter, president of a company bearing his name that consigned manufacturing to European assembly lines.

The experience emptied his spirits even as it promised riches. He was producing boots that sold well but did not wear well. Throwaway mentality sunk in. Next year, customers will want a new color. Expansion, financing, deals, debt--a familiar story.

Merrell left the enterprise and returned to the serenity of the workbench.

“A one-person business is really a life form,” he said. He mentions the value of choosing a place to live that is deeply rooted in his Mormon heritage. And where his sons can learn of the outdoors, and scare up a rabbit to kill and cook, and share the meal with the dog, and come home to announce, proudly, “Already had dinner, Mom.” And a place where everything a man produces must please him first.

Today, because of his reputation, Merrell commands $1,000-plus for a pair of boots and never approaches the end of his back-order list. Astounding, you say? And that’s not all. To be fitted for a first pair, one must travel to Vernal, near the border of Utah and Colorado, and spend three or four hours while Merrell videotapes your stride, measures your feet, rubber-stamps your footprint on white paper. Then you wait a year.

Even so, you will be paying Merrell not much more than a good car mechanic earns per hour. So why bother? Surely there are aesthetic reasons. Western boots tend to inspire degrees of fanaticism. But in a practical vein, Merrell knows that many Americans simply cannot find shoes or boots that fit.

About 25% of people, at least--and 50% is probably closer--have an atypical size, he said. An equally large percentage has a biomechanical deficiency. Yet the same people who rush to the dentist at the slightest discomfort will endure aching feet as part of life. They will slow down and prematurely sink into the folds of the couch and never think to get proper shoes.

Why? Perhaps only that we accept what we don’t know how to fix.

Add to that the promise of durability. The saddle-tan ostrich boots Merrell is now wearing are 10 years old, and he expects another 10.

Add it up and the custom boot begins to look like a better bargain. That’s what Merrell tells students at each of his seminars. But he adds, it will be a hard, slow sell. “There are few people willing to pay a craftsman.”

There are some who will, however. And the price tag is not always so big.

In the Little Tokyo district of downtown Los Angeles, Brian Kito competes with the machine age to produce 80-cent works of edible art. Kito is no wandering dropout, no craft newcomer. He is the third generation to maintain a family business established in 1903, the Japanese confectionery Fugetsu-Do.

Tea cakes, or wagashi, are components of Japanese celebrations, particularly New Year’s, when the doors of Fugetsu-Do remain unlocked 24 hours a day and crowds press in. And increasingly, these variable morsels--part candy and part dumpling; grilled, baked or steamed--are eaten as stylish snack food by Asian Americans of many heritages.

Containing sugar, rice and red beans, the delicate tea cakes arrive in shapes and colors to evoke changing seasons, like the nearly transparent globes with suspended flecks of sugar that suggest water running over stones in spring streams. Other wagashi conform to traditions of ritual, like the stack of cakes topped with a tangerine that symbolizes New Year’s.

Mostly tea cakes are made on mechanical assembly lines nowadays. Kito still produces his by hand for the same price, and in the tradition of Japanese craftsmen who require 10 years’ experience before claiming mastery.

Kito has been at it for 22 years. Yet he still strives to match his father’s expressive skill with the smallest, most detailed tea cakes.

“After you finish,” he said of his confections, “it’s very much like art. You turn one around and look at it. And there are questions that only the person who made it can ask.”

Times researcher Janet Lundblad assisted with this story.


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