A pandemic can challenge even the most innovative gay Atlanta leather shop once bustling in-store, online and on the road. Barking Leather enters month seven with chins up but noses to the grindstone.
Owner Ray Stewart put his industrial machines to use early in the pandemic sewing masks for frontline workers, and business is slowly returning. Still, it’s rough out there for the premier spot for custom leather.
“The impact that this pandemic has had on my business can be described as nothing less than concerning,” Stewart told Project Q. “Our sales have dropped over 50% over last year, and although we are slowly cutting into that shortage, there still remains a lot of catching up to do.”
The brick and mortar store moved to Ansley Square just last year. But it’s only part of Barking Leather’s revenue stream. One of the biggest 2020 hurdles to jump is the absence of traveling events. Some of the biggest draws already canceled for next year.
“We usually do anywhere from 15 to 25 road shows a year. This year, we have only done one, and that was back in January,” Stewart said. “All other road shows have been canceled, [and] we recently found out that Mid Atlantic Leather has also canceled their event for 2021.”
As tough as business is, most disheartening is the loss of staff, he added. A small amount of Payroll Protection Program funds came through, but it wasn’t enough to keep people on board.
“Before the pandemic, Barking Leather employed five people besides myself,” said Stewart (photo left). “Currently, I am only able to bring back one employee, because we do not have the sales to be able to bring back anymore. I am hoping early next year I will be able to bring back the staff that I miss so much.”
These days, the store requires face coverings and temperature checks for staff and customers. Patrons are limited to no more than 10 at a time. Stewart shows those who balk the door and the online site for virtual shopping.
“I respectfully inform them that it is not just about them but that it is also about my staff as well as myself and the other customers,” Stewart said. “I have masks here at the store I offer everyone, free of charge, if they didn’t bring one with them.”
A few features in the COVID-Era version of Barking Leather remain the same. The friendliness, quality craftsmanship and genuine care for customers haven’t changed one iota, according to Stewart.
“You can still expect the same amazing customer service you have come to expect from us, as well as the attention to detail we pride ourselves in doing,” he said. “We are so ready to put 2020 behind us and get back to ‘normal,’ whatever that may be in the future.”
Keeping the faith
Until then, Barking Leather is hard work and hope through heartbreak with community in mind.
“We miss our customers, we miss their smiles, we miss the physical interactions with them,” Stewart said. “ It has been a hard, rough road for all of us, but we just have to be patient, and all this will be a thing of the past.”
Stewart also has a message for LGBTQ Atlanta, especially his loyal customers.
“We are all in this together,” he said. “We appreciate each and every one of you who comes to visit the store, the people who refer us to their friends, and the ones who call just to check up on us.”
“Without you, we would not be here,” he added. “Your faith in us gives me faith that we will survive. Keep your head ups, your hearts full of love and look out for each other — oh yeah, and vote on Nov. 3!”
Barking Leather is located at 1510 Piedmont Ave. NE. Visit Tuesdays through Sundays from 12 noon – 9 p.m., visit barkingleather.com, or call 404-900-5847.
Photos by Patrick Saunders for Project Q