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Crafting leather for the soul

  • Charlotte Observer
  • Published Saturday, April 6, 2013, at 7:15 a.m.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Scott Hofert’s career is a marriage of automated and manual, spiritual and tangible — a veritable workshop of internal growth and external product.

In short: church and cowhide.

Hofert, 42, is co-pastor of the church Watershed in the NoDa neighborhood of Charlotte, N.C., and the founder and owner of ColsenKeane, a custom leather goods shop located just four doors down from his church office.

Hofert didn’t always juggle the two. But four years ago, after a career of desk jobs, academia and then pastorship, he longed for the satisfaction of working with his hands again.

Hofert is one of a growing number of 21st-century professionals who, after spending countless hours a week at a computer, long to produce something that can’t be stored on a server.

The New York Times bestselling book “Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work,” by Matthew Crawford, has become a mouthpiece for the movement.

Following a doctorate in political philosophy and a job as executive director of a Washington think tank, Crawford quit his job to open a motorcycle repair shop.

He argues that, though the scope of the economic crisis is yet uncertain, the crisis of confidence professionals now feel in “our most prestigious institutions and professions” is strong.

“The question of what a good job looks like — of what sort of work is both secure and worthy of being honored — is more open now than it has been in for a long time,” Crawford writes in the introduction.

And after reassessing his work values, Crawford says he’s never been so fulfilled.

Hofert read the book after he’d already started his leather shop and felt instant kinship with Crawford.

“Had I read that prior to working at this,” he said, pointing a calloused hand toward the tool sets and 9,000 square feet of rolled cowhide stacked on metal shelves, “I would have just thought, ‘Oh, that guy just doesn’t like his job.’ ”

But now, he says, “When I read that book, I felt as though it were speaking to my soul.”

Hofert’s great-grandfather opened a repair shop for watches and clocks in Kenmore, N.Y., that was passed along to Hofert’s grandfather and then Hofert’s father.

Hofert started his Charlotte business four years ago, naming it after his two sons, Colsen, 8, and Keane, 5, who he hopes will one day take over the family business as well.

He’d long been drawn to high-quality leather goods, so one day, Hofert decided to make some himself. He spent a couple hundred dollars on a piece of leather and $50 on tools.

His first project was an iPad case, which he made by wrapping leather around it.

Pleased with the final product, he made a few more cases and posted photos of them on Etsy, a website for selling handmade crafts.

The requests rolled in: leather belts, wallets and bags.

Hofert’s backyard shed, where he made his goods, grew increasingly crowded, and the U.S. Postal Service made regular visits for shipments.

“It snowballed,” he said.

Hofert’s wares range in price from $50 for a basic wallet to about $800 for large leather bags. His most expensive project was a $2,000 bag, made from rare cowhide.

After he’d saved a little money from his new enterprise, Hofert began to advertise.

He says he spent $1,000 on business-card-sized ads in “Rolling Stone” magazine, bought ads in Delta and US Airways in-flight magazines and took out ads in “MacLife” because of his leather iPad and MacBook cases. Since starting the business in 2009, Hofert says he has served about 2,000 people, and the business has grown 300 percent each year. ColsenKeane customers now hail from the U.S. and Canada, as well as Mexico, South America, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Australia and all across Europe.

Two weeks ago, Hofert opened a new workspace and storefront on Central Avenue, just steps from his church office. You see, he says, his two jobs aren’t mutually exclusive.

Hofert says that creating works of art from leather actually helps him organize his thoughts, making him more productive and effective as a pastor. He’s even in a small church group with fellow entrepreneurs.

“It’s really fascinating,” Hofert said. “I can sit down … and talk about how to better a marriage and then next minute talk about business.”

Right now, he spends more than 40 hours a week as a pastor and more than 20 hours in the shop. He employs three other full-time leather smiths and two church members who handle the books and shipping part time.

Hofert says he’s content to grow ColsenKeane slowly. He says he never wants the need for mass production and high-tech machinery to outweigh the value — and intimacy — of handiwork.

After all, he said, “We’re getting back to what I surmise we were created to do. … For some, it’s basketball on the weekend. For some, it’s taking the car apart on the driveway, or gardening.

“… The guy who works construction, the plumber who knows how to take pipes apart, there’s a real quality of life to that. Because at the end of the day, you can step back and say, ‘I did that.’ ”

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