Irona Cliver can’t tell the story of Sgt. C’s Leathers without talking about her brother, David “Bubba” Cliver.
The pair started making magnetic jewelry together to sell at crafts shows in 2008, graduated to a booth at the Village Flea Market on South Meridian and finally opened a small store at Broadway and 31st Street.
Then, just before the store’s move to a larger location in December 2011, David took his own life. He was 26.
“I always thought it was going to be me and him against the world,” Cliver said, tears in her eyes.
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Friends and family helped open the shop as planned, and Cliver was back at work within days. She doesn’t dwell on her brother’s death, but she doesn’t avoid talking about it either, as some people have advised.
Instead, she pours her energy into the business, which doubled in size last fall when she took over the space formerly used by a balloon shop next door. Today it’s 1,600 square feet neatly filled with vests, chaps, patches, helmets, scarves and just about anything else a motorcyclist could want.
Cliver, 32, said she has ridden motorcycles off and on since she was a child. She grew up in Wichita, competing in both swimming and tennis at South High School. She said she partied her way out of Wichita State University as a freshman, then did the same thing at Cowley College after earning a scholarship there via its dance team.
She joined the Marines on a dare from a friend. She spent four years driving military vehicles in California, Japan and Guam and another four as an administrative personnel clerk in Kansas City. She shot competitively and served on funeral details.
“I got to see the other side of the conflict,” she said. She rose to the rank of sergeant following a supervisor’s advice: “You take the great qualities of leadership you like and leave the rest behind.”
Back in Wichita, Cliver earned a business degree from WSU on her second go-round at the school. She says she learned nearly as much about selling while vying for customers’ attention at the flea market.
“It was fun. I’ve applied a lot of the techniques I learned there.”
In addition to selling goods, Cliver sews on patches and makes minor leather repairs using a vintage sewing machine.
“When you’re working on leather, you can control it,” she said of the foot-powered machine. “You’ve got guys who’ve inherited their dad’s leather jacket, so …”
Cliver said many people “misperceive” bikers as being one homogenous group. In fact, while her store offers T-shirts with humorously profane messages, it also has jewelry for female riders, who she said are the fastest-growing segment of the industry.
On Tuesday, Cliver helped a Navy veteran buy the right size vest extenders – “You don’t want anything to scratch your (gas) tank” – then find a pair of wing-shaped earrings for his significant other.
A little later, another customer came in and said he needed a new jacket because his current one is covered with patches dedicated to his ex-wife.
Cliver seems to know just about everyone in the neighborhood, from the veteran who stops in on his way to buying a lotto ticket to the lady seeking donations for a new street ministry. Cliver hands the latter a bag of bracelets and gloves from a basket she keeps for such requests.
Cliver rides her two motorcycles regularly when she’s not working. “It kind of sucks when you have real pretty days, but that’s part of it.”
Photographs of her brother hang in a corner of the store. Some customers share their own stories about him.
“He was such a big part of my part of my life,” she said. “I always called him my public relations guru.”
Cliver used to close her store on Tuesdays before he convinced her otherwise.
“My brother told me I need to close Sunday and Monday so I’d have more time off to be with family.”