Article: Milwaukee Magazine

The following is a reprint of an article that appeared in Milwaukee Magazine in January of 2001. 

WATER STREET'S CHARMER BY C.J. HRIBAL                      Jan 2001

Just try to resist Jerry Mitchell, an entrepreneur indifferent to business, an engaging conversationalist who befriends everyone, a perfectionist who is making, arguably the best briefcases in the world.

Jerry Mitchell is dismayed. A couple from Chicago has just walked out of his Water Street luggage shop in a huff because he didn't break off from his conversation with me to wait on them.  "I am just finishing with this gentleman," he's told them.  "I'll be with you in 10 minutes." The couple says they only have 15 minutes on the meter.  "Park in the back," he says.  "You can stay as long as you like- free!"  They walk out five minutes later.  He's shaking his head, upset not that he lost a sale but that they displayed so little patience. 

It's a problem he sees too often in American life.  He remembers from when he was a young man in Europe: "You buy a suit," he says in his lilting Central European accent, "the whole street will know you are buying a suit." His eyes gleam as he recalls the process: paging through magazines, looking at styles, selecting the fabric, getting measured. "You wait so long it becomes valuable.  Now," he says with a touch of disappointment, "we all look the same."

Mitchell makes and sells handbags and briefcases, not suits, but his emphasis on quality, on good things taking time, is the same.  "Technology doesn't give people a choice," he says.  "Things can be made with heart and brains, not only made by machines fast."

Mitchell's briefcases are, arguably, the best in the world. Customers rave about their beauty, craftsmanship and quality.  Stopped on the street and asked if her briefcase was a Coach - the Mercedes of handbags and briefcases, and priced accordingly at about $500 - one Mitchell customer retorted proudly, "Oh, no. It's a Mitchell."

Legions of Mitchell owners here and across the world feel the same kind of loyalty to their briefcases.  Four Japanese diplomats bought Mitchell briefcases just prior to their assignments as ambassadors to Africa.  Gov. Tommy Thompson received a briefcase as a present from representatives of the Chiba Prefecture, Japan.  Judges, CEOs, attorneys, educators and even the founding partner of a law firm headquartered in Milan, Italy, proudly carry handmade briefcases engineered (and I don't use that term loosely) by Jerry Mitchell.

Few People in Milwaukee, though, know about Mitchell or his briefcases.  That may be because of his nondescript shop.  Mitchell Leather Manufacturing and Store (226 N. Water St.) is not a place that screams "high end leather products sold here."

More likely, the reason is that Mitchell, 66, is probably the most amiable, paradoxical entrepreneur in town.  He spends next to nothing on marketing and keeps hours a banker would envy.  "We have hours when people cannot come, but I'm a golfer," he says. "I golf in the morning and I golf at night."

But in the store, customers are doted on.  He claims he has no head for business- "My business is more like a comedy," he says- but Mitchell managed to parlay an engineering commisson into the start-up capital for his first factory and used the resulting credit rating to finance subsequent ventures.  He's an engineer who figured out ways factories could make products more efficiently, a man who made his first real money cranking out a thousand handbags a day for J.C. Penney.  Yet for the last couple of decades, his own factory store has produced handmade leather briefcases and handbags at a pace that seems about right for a 19th century cobbler.

In our use-it-and-toss-it culture, Mitchell is a throwback, a reminder that quality and craftsmanship matter. In a good week, his factory might produce 20 handbags. Or three or four briefcases.  He cheerfully admits he could make more, but he seems to live quite contentedly inside an alternate reality located where the Craftsman Movement and the Renaissance meet contemporary leisure culture.  But he is so proud of his shop's work that for the last several years, he's been signing each piece as though it were a work of art.  And they are.

MITCHELL'S BRIEFCASES ARE CUSTOM MADE, and customers can have a hand in their creation, taking a freight elevator up to the shop's second and third floors to pick out the leathers and colors they want.  An attorney, for instance, needed a black briefcases for court but wanted it to have some pizazz. So Mitchell made her a bag with a button down black exterior and a snzzy red interior.  "Nobody thinks to make it in colors," says Mitchell.  "Nobody thinks to change the leathers."

Mitchell claims he's no salesman, but you get the feeling this is a man who could sell fire extinguishers to Satan.  Not that he'd need to.  "If you don't buy something, that's okay with him," says Luis Marrero, product manager for Allen-Bradley. "Because if you're looking for that sort of thing, you'll be back."

Mitchell's marketing plan is simple.  Make the most beautiful, best-engineered bag in the world and garner new customers who salivate over his briefcases when they see them.  "I'm not a very good marketer," he says.  "So I stress attractiveness, practicality, quality.  Every customer is an advertisement."

Craig Stelmach flew in from Boston to have his bag made.  His parents were going to buy one of the 150 briefcases Mitchell has in stock, but he wouldn't let them, insisting that they wait until Stelmach could pick out the leathers and colors he wanted.  Mitchell even let him cut the leather himself. "It's gorgeous, gorgeous," Stelmach says of his bag. 

For Milwaukee architect Ursula Trombley, a principal of Continuum Architects and Planners, Mitchell designed a custom case to fit the outsize planner she needs to carry.  He made to or three prototypes, and the process took several months.  "I appreciate people taking pride in their work," says Trombley.  "I had a lot of fun working with him.

"It is much harder to make individual bags," says Mitchell, "but I want people to buy a briefcase that they will have all their life.  It will be a friend to him."

Such a good friend that when one Marquette University professor came in to pick up her briefcase, she hugged it to her chest, proclaiming, "I'm so happy," and danced with it across the shop.

MITCHELL DIDN'T START OUT MAKING works of art people danced with. In fact, his career would not have been possible at all had he and his parents not escaped from Romania in late 1964.  His childhood was spent under the Nazis, his young adulthood under the Communists.  For 10 years, his father was in prison for being an "exploiter."  He owned a small tannery and held an interest in a racehorse.  Because of his father's imprisonment, Mitchell was kicked off his professional vollyball team and expelled from his university.

Years passed before he could play volleyball again.  Several of his new teammates worked for the security forces and helped get Mitchell's father out of prison and the family out of the country.  Mitchell knows his teammates risked their careers, possibly their lives, in doing so.  In Vienna, they declared asylum, and because his father had been a tanner and could speak German, the Mitchells (Mitchell was born Jerry Mihail Aizicovici, but he changed the name because, "it's easier for conversations") were sent to Milwaukee.  It didn't hurt that Mitchell had a friend there, Dorel Dolberg, another escapee who could sponsor them.  "We left our house, everything.  The only thing we had were new shoes, and with the snow, they fell apart."  He lifts up his hands.  Dissolving shoes - what can you do?  This is a good joke on him.

After that, his story has "only in America" written all over it.  On the family's first day here, his father left their hotel at 6:30 p.m.  When he didn't return, Mitchell and his mother worried he'd been arrested.  But he'd met a German-speaking man who took him to John Ernst restaurant, where he spent the night washing dishes.  He returned in the wee hours with American cash in his pockets. 

Soon after that, Mitchell found a job, too, though his Milwaukee sponsor.  He couldn't speak English, but by the end of his first day, his pay was doubled to, to $2.60 and hour.  He credits having quick fingers.

Mitchell was quick at other things, too.  Just months after his arrival, he married.  He met his wife, Bernadette Kern, at a rummage sale and liked her immediately.  But there was a problem: Neither spoke the other's language.  How did they communicate? Mitchell gestures with a back-and-forth movement of his fingers.  He smiles. "I could make myself understood," he says.  There was another complication, too - Kern was already engaged to someone else.  Engaged? But how?... Mitchell shrugs, beaming.  You get the feeling this was his greatest sale.

In telling his story, there are only a few times when Mitchell is anything but cheery: when he talks about his father's incarceration, his death years later and the death of his first daughter. "It is much harder than living under the Communists, to lose a child." Mitchell was working as an engineer at the time, while studying for a degree in industrial engineering.  After the infant's death (the couple later had another son, David, now 29), he got sick himself.  "I was depressed, but at that time nobody knoew what to do with this."

His father did. If Mitchell rescued his father from prison, it was his father who rescued him from depression.  He recommended his son to General Split, a leather manufacturing company for whom Mitchell's father worked as a jobber.  Split had a problem - too much scrap was wasted. Mitchell designed a conveyor that ran beneath each machine and transported the scraps to where they could be recycled.  He got $60,000 for that bit of consulting - a fortune in the late '60s.  With the money he founded General Automatic Corporation, which manufactured control boxes, reciprocating circuits and photoelectric cells, but it wasn't long before his father came to him with a new problem.  He wanted to take advantage of the booming "hippie look" and import fringed bags from California.  Mitchell wondered why his father needed to buy the bags; Mitchell could easily design a factory, and the bags could be made in Milwaukee.

Eventually, father and son went into business, landing an account with J.C. Penney.  Ralph LaRevere, a buyer at the time, remembers them coming to him on "open seeing day," when manufacturers' reps could come without appointments. "They came," says LaRevere, "with their very pleasant accents and their enthusiasm.  They had very little other than enthusiasm and faith, but the impression was that this was someone you could trust."  After a few visits he gave them a trial order much larger than they were expecting: bags for all 1700 stores.

Soon the Mitchells were manufacturing 1,000 bags a day and in 1974, a Mitchell bag landed on the cover of J.C. Penney's annual report.  But their windfall was short-lived.  The next year, the store decided to import all of its bags.  Mitchell had lost his biggest, practically only account.  In typical "if life hands you lemons" manner, Mitchell says "They did us the best service.  We were scared to lose our only customers, but we also learned that quality material would sell." Soon he started making and selling upscale bags to other stores - Neiman Marcus, Marshall Field's, Lord & Taylor, Dayton's - and subcontracting for Anne Klein and Coach. 

After his father died in 1979, Mitchell opened his own outlet store, originally he says, "as something for my mother to do."  He was still doing subcontracting work, making about 600 bags a week, but the profit margin was terrible.  So he decided to design and make his own bags the way he wanted. 

He picked an awful time for such a move.  The Late 1970s and early 1980s were tough years for leather manufacturers.  "At one time," says Mitchell, "there were more than a thousand manufacturers of leather goods in the New York City area alone."  Now they were all closing, moving their operations to Korea,or Taiwan,  LaRevere says that most of the "manufacturers" that remained in this country essentially became importers; it was the cost-effective thing to do.

Mitchell had plenty of offers for relocating.  China kept calling him, offering him a free factory and low cost labor - 45 cents for a 14 hour workday and no benefits- but Mitchell rebuffed the offers.  "I didn't want subsidies - ever," he says.  "I lived in a Communist country. I don't want to be in a Communist country.

His thinking had changed, too, about what kind of bag he wanted to make.  His competitors offered mass-produced bags at low cost.  Mitchell decided instead to make high-end products.  "We're a shop now, not a factory," says Mitchell.  "If we did not bags completely differently from everybody else, we would not survive."

Mitchell's idea - something that others had not thought to do - was to engineer the briefcases.  He now holds patents on a modular handle mechinism (often the first thing to wear out), a new strap holder using Velcro inside ("300 times stronger than leather or stitch," he says) and a modular strap mechanism.  Other improvements he didn't patent include protective brass feet, a no-sag back pocket, no bulge construction on the bottom,and key holders.

"I have a tremendous advantage," he says.  "I can do anything.  I'm the janitor, I design the bags, the machines.  I'm mechanically inclined.  I have taste.  People like what I am doing.  I'm not afraid to do things harder, which takes a long time."

Perhaps that's why he likes to show off his anachronism of a factory.  "I like to show how they made bags in old times.  Everything we do is obsolete in a way, but I see there are a lot of people who like this obsolete."

"Did he take you upstairs?" is the one question everyone asks when I say I'm writing an article about Mitchell.  The tour, in its own way, is amazing.  You take a freight elevator to the second floor ("that horrendous elevator," Bernadette calls it) and it's like stumbling into a museum that's amassed everything for an exhibit of early to mid 20th century manufacturing but forgot to pretty things up for the customers.  Strewn about are cutting, sewing and staining tables; tables of patterns, tables of tools.  Leather is heaped everywhere - in bins, on racks, on pallets.  "There's no shine, there's no polish, there's nothing," says Bernadette.  "What there is, is the truth of the beginning."

Mitchell picks up one of those early suede bags and hands me another from his subcontracting days.  "I'm like a child, I get goose bumps," he says, gesturing at his history.

At 66, MITCHELL IS THINKING ABOUT THE NEXT STAGE.  He's had offers to buy his operation but wants someone who is willing to spend the time to learn the business and who shares the same quixotic vision.

That's a tall order.  Making briefcases you can dance with, after all, is labor-intensive, with 250 separate operations going into making a Mitchell briefcase. Just learning to skive (thin) leather is becoming a lost art because it requires knowing the different properties of different leathers.  It's another reason why MItchell's operation is smaller than it used to be.  "We would destroy a person if we train them," says Mitchell.  "It takes five, six years to train, and they'll never find work in this country."

Mitchell is down to two workers now.  Khanhlang Tran and Micaela Alvarado.  Two more women- Genevieve Svevdlin and Beverly Bolling - work in the store.  They've been with him anywhere from 12-16 years.

He's also thought of moving the entire operation to the first floor, renovating the upper levels for apartments and offices.  It dismays him a little that he hasn't found a suitable heir (his son is interested in high end audio - that was then, now David has dove in head first!) "We don't know how long we'll be" he says in that lovely accent.

Bernadette doesn't think he'll ever retire - he takes too much pleasure in his work.  That's a word that cropped up with everyone I talked to regarding Jerry Mitchell - pleasure.  "I love sports and I love to live my life," he says.  "Maybe that's a disadvantage, but I think it's an advantage.  This store is unique.  We don't push.  We make quality.  Everything we make I want to be the best possible.  I want to make everyone one thing that's something special."

"As an engineer, I'm impressed," says Allen Bradley's Luis Marrero.  "I don't like to buy something twice, and with Jerry's stuff, I don't have to."

PEOPLE DON'T NEED TO BUY MITCHELL BRIEFCASES MORE THAN ONCE, but they frequently do.  Dr. Lauren Leshan of St. Mary's Hospital bought bags for an entire class of graduating family practice residents, and Harvey Sperling, former University School headmaster, often buys them as gifts.  "It's a reflection of the giver, to give something so special," says Sperling.

Jack and Barb Williams have made giving Mitchell briefcases a family tradition.  As each niece or nephew graduates from college, they bring them to Mitchell's shop, give them a tour and offer a choice: They can take cash as a graduation present or a briefcase.  "We wanted to give them something they would use and remember us by," says Jack.  "I'm afraid they're going to use the bag and remember Jerry Mitchell."

"They're just enchanted by Mr. Mitchell," adds Barb, putting her finger on exactly why, in addition to the beauty and the quality, people treasure their Mitchells."

When I ask former Penney's buyer Ralph LaRevere why he decided to take a chance on the Mitchells, he replies, "Because they showed such passion for what they were doing."  Then, pausing a moment, he adds, "The charm.  The charm of the individuals."

Thirty years later, they're still friends.

That seems to be a common occurance.  "Everyone becomes my friend," Mitchell says, shrugging as though it's something he can't help.

"I look at him like the state of Wisconsin, like the city of Milwaukee," adds Jack Williams, "an undiscovered gem."

Mitchell Leather Factory


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