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In 1987, BARBARA SHAUM told SIMON McKAY a little bit about her life in New York and about her work crafting leather. (An article that's a departure from the usual music-related material, but punk attitude... Barbara had plenty of that.)

Barbara Shaum, New York, Made Custom Leather Sandals, 1987
Barbara making shoes in her shop on East 4th Street in 1987

Barbara Shaum had a leather shop on E 4th Street in the East Village. I liked the look of it as I walked past. I met Barbara and I liked the look of her. She made everything on the premises by hand; belts, bags, briefcases and sandals. I watched her do fittings for the sandals (tracing and drawing the patterns), glue the layers of the soles. I'd smell the pungent smell of the glue as it was applied and I’d watch her stain the leather till it was the shade she wanted.

Barbara learnt her craft working for three or four people before she set up her own shop in the early 1960s, in nearby E 7th Street. She lived and worked there for 25 years till her landlord sold the building. When I met her, she’d been in her current shop for 2 years. She was fascinating. Absolutely furious about rising rents in the area, which were ‘rocketing above inflation’. She told me local ‘revitalisation’ and landlords refusing to renegotiate rents was changing the character of the neighbourhood and long established businesses were being forced to relocate. It was exacerbated by investors who held onto empty buildings as tax losses. She lamented how much New York City had lost because of corruption. So many people were living in slums and a huge increase in homeless people. Rereading the notes I made in 1987, it’s stunning how much this sounds like London now, but back then, when I was 21 and knew very little outside of my hometown (Newcastle Upon Tyne); these perspectives were all very new to me.

Long narrow shop. Tiny kitchen and loo at the back.jpg
Long narrow shop. Tiny kitchen and loo at the back.

Barbara built her business on word of mouth and curious passers-by who, like me, were lured in. But round about the time I met her, fashion magazines were starting to feature her work. She had a couple of them out on her display and was proud to show them to me. Rightly so, as she would never be short of work again.

Barbara came from Pennsylvania. She moved to New York in 1950 when she was 21. She told me how she’d ridden on the freedom buses in the 1960s and it was clear she’d got involved with a very politically aware crowd. (She was friends with Allen Ginsberg, but made it plain that he was far from charming.)

Barbara Shaum, New York City, Cooper Square, Speculators Keep Away, 1987
Barbara organised a local movement to resist speculators coming into the area. (This sign first attracted me to the street.)

I saw Barbara a number of times over the years. She always made me welcome. We'd chat. Sometimes she'd invite me to come back at closing time and we went to the bar at the end of the block. When I visited in the late 1990s, she had young people working for her. She was teaching them her craft in the same way she'd learned it from a generation before her. The last time I saw her was 2001. I asked her how she was. She replied, ‘Old and cranky!’ I looked her up online in 2017 and was very sad to read she passed away in September 2015, age 86. There’s a lot about her online - she worked till near the end of her life. I knew she’d been married twice and there’s a great quote in the New York Times linked to that when she said, “Martinis are like marriages. Two is enough and three is too many.” She was legendary in the East Village for her leather work and well known for her egalitarian principals and for making a stand against rising rents in the area. I got lucky the day I walked into her shop. And, showing very little sign of wear, I’ve still got one of her belts; a fabulous keepsake!

SIMON McKAY (2017)

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