Bill “Hawk” Connelly is a rare specimen: a Harley owner and ex-marine with nary a single tattoo. That may be because he’s got this other creative outlet. In the basement of his Vernon house, the retired cop turns sides of cows into everything from pistol holsters to Nook covers. He has a whole binder of pictures of guitar straps he’s done, in case you come in without any ideas.
The business started as a hobby in the 70s, when Connelly watched his buddy from the marine corps make a leather wristband. Connelly made himself a wristband, then a handlebar bag for his motorcycle. He made stuff for friends and family. Later his partner, Beverly Spoer, got into it, carving labyrinths and inspirational messages into journal covers, for which Connelly would fashion the snaps.
The couple learned from each other. They experimented with incorporating different tools, like a meat tenderizer and a rock from the yard to give leather what Spoer calls “that beat-up look,” a dentist’s plaque remover to groove a deeper line into leather than the stylus intended for that purpose. But it remained a hobby until about six years ago, when Connelly’s daughter suggested that he check out the website Etsy, which sells handmade items.
They named the business Hawk Leather, uploaded images of their “handcrafted genuine leather products,” and orders started trickling in: a messenger bag for a New York City lawyer, a verse card box for a devout Christian, a guitar strap for a Texas rocker emblazoned with a replica of the guy’s blackbird tattoo. Their internet presence scored them invitations to festivals. Last December, they found themselves in the basement 14 hours a day, fielding 160 custom orders.
A map above Spoer’s work table has pins marking where their customers come from. They’ve got strongholds in the northeast, Texas and California; a smattering of customers in Alaska and Canada; a small following in Europe and an island I think was New Zealand. They just got their first order from Russia.
People appreciate the one-of-a-kind pieces bearing a cow’s stretch marks, tick bites, the scar where she brushed up against barbed wire on the range. Mostly, they like the smell.
“That’s our number one comment,” said Connelly. “‘When I opened the box, I smelled the leather before I took it out.’”