I was working as a guitar teacher at the San Francisco School of Folk Music and nearing burnout. I wanted to reinvent myself again. I had done leathercraft as a sort of side gig to guitar teaching when I lived in Salt Lake about five years earlier, and when I saw the help-wanted ad for someone to work on handbag repair, I thought I would give it a go. Brian and Karen, the Oliviers, hired me.
Brian served as the front man—he was British with an accent, tall, nicely built, with wavy dark blond hair and the rugged good looks of a prizefighter. In fact, he had been a boxer at one time—a regimental champion while in the Royal Air Force. He also dressed up very nicely.
Karen, however, was the master of repair. She had a German accent and was meticulous about detail. She possessed all the skills, and except for the metalwork, which Mr. Olivier handled, her talent made the shop successful.
They insisted that employees call them “Mr. and Mrs. Olivier.”
The entrance to the suite had a bell, and when it rang, Mr. Olivier would often say, “Here comes another punter,” as he pulled on his jacket and straightened his tie.
I took it to the back room and put on the welding helmet and gloves. As I began to weld a new connector onto the back, the whole butterfly dissolved into a pool of silver liquid on the bench. The piece had been cast in pot metal (a low-quality metal), and then plated with brass. Mr. Olivier told me that one could sometimes use a file on an invisible area of a metal piece to see whether it’s plated instead of solid. I did find a solid-brass piece, not a butterfly, that would work as a replacement. The owner understood what had happened, but I think she missed the butterfly.
One day Mr. and Mrs. Olivier were out, and as “senior staff” I was on the front desk if customers came in. A woman entered dressed all in Gucci, carrying a Yorkshire terrier under her arm. She had come to pick up her cleaned handbag. Oddly, Yorkshire terriers like me; they are not usually friendly to unfamiliar people. She set the dog on the counter, and it proceeded to start licking my hand. Lick . . . lick . . . lick . . . I retrieved the woman’s bag from underneath the counter and slowly unwrapped it.
“Obviously, some error has been made,” I offered, wrapping the bag back up. This was a Major Problem. “I will need to talk to Mr. Olivier about it. I’m very sorry, but we will see what can be done.”
She picked up the Yorkshire terrier, which gazed wistfully at me, and stormed out, leaving a trail of angry disappointment behind.
When we cleaned bags, we used solvents to remove dirt, oils, and any old wax from the surface. A relatively mild solvent, such as water or diluted alcohol, would usually take care of this. But for some jobs, such as stripping, we used acetone.
We also did repair and polishing work on brand-new bags from the stores in that area. Sometimes the bags would be damaged while on the rack. This was when I came across my first Louis Vuitton bag with a price tag of $750. That was six times what I made in a week! Prices seem to have stayed as high or higher in today’s dollars, as you can see from the images I’ve included.
When I left the job at Olivier’s, Mr. and Mrs. Olivier were not getting along well. Mrs. Olivier wanted out of the business. I didn’t stay in touch with them; I got an office job in South San Francisco working for a musical instrument importer and wholesaler.