Churchill Barton owns Brettuns Village Leather in Lewiston. The shop specializes in scrap leather and full cowhides such as those draped next to him. 

LEWISTON — Twenty years ago, as a geologist working with Cole Haan to help the shoemaker reduce its use of hazardous chemicals, Churchill Barton was shocked to see the factory routinely toss 2½ tons of scrap leather each week, some of it uncut hides.

“‘That color’s not selling.’ ‘We’re finished making that style.’ ‘We reached the end of our production run for that pair of shoes and we have 32 hides left over, so throw it in the dumpster,'” said Barton, recalling what he was told when he asked. “It looked like an opportunity to me.”

He left that line of work and with his geologist wife, Amanda, opened a reclaimed leather business.

From factory space beside Bob’s Peanuts & Candy on Lincoln Street — you wouldn’t know he was there unless you knew to look — Barton sells more than half a million dollars’ worth of scrap leather per year around the world.

He sells to renaissance fair crafters. People restoring old pipe organs. Movie sets. Cub Scouts. Earlier this year, Disney World called for a project.

“We’re trying to put good leather in the hands of folks that could put it to good use,” said Barton, 58. “It may be scrap to the company that generated it, but to the person who is making smaller leather goods, it’s a thing of great beauty to them.”

Brettuns Village Leather sells leather by the pound and by the hide. It comes to him in many ways: castoffs from the shoe and handbag industry, factory closeouts, practice color runs that didn’t work out.

“Much of that (smaller scrap) comes at zero cost because there are different disposal restrictions that are expensive to meet,” Barton said. “It’s less expensive to give it to us.”

In the long aisles in his shop, there are all manner of colors, sizes and animals (cow, sheep, goat, pig, even horse,) along with grommets, belt buckles and other embellishments. With the exception of a small area devoted to permanent inventory, it’s a very “find what you can, when you can” shop philosophy. 

For years, it was only open to the public two hours a week. Though he’s expanded to weekday hours, and does get visitors, 98 percent of business is online.

With the low upfront, he said, the aim is “to make sure that our prices are better than any other in the leather world,” which customers appreciate. Usually.

“I had a guy last week on the phone,” Barton said. “He said, ‘I bought two hides to redo the inside of my car, I should have bought three and the place I got it, they’re out. But on your site (what looks like the same leather) is $175. I paid $650 for each hide that I bought, so what’s the difference?’ I said, ‘Probably the company you bought them from bought them from us, then sold them to you.’ He was so disheartened. I was trying to pep him up on the phone.”

Disney World, he said, needed leather laces to thread through an advertising flyer and hang off hotel room doors at several of its resorts.

“I guess they thought it would make it more noticeable, more real,” he said.

The Brettuns Village shop officially has three divisions: leather, the largest; antique trunks and trunk parts; and antique keys, born from the antique trunk work. While they were still in high school, daughters Rebecca and Hayley discovered that most old trunk locks are stamped with a code for the exact key required to open it.

“The girls figured out there’s a finite universe of trunk lock keys, and they figured out how to find them by scouring eBay and calling locksmith shops around the country to see if they’d like to sell off their old stock,” Barton said. “They’ll sell you that key you need for $25. (It) took a big bite out of their tuition bills.”

The trunks and trunk parts division, which Amanda oversees, extends to antique suitcases and has also fielded some high-profile requests. 

“We shipped a bunch of them at one point to Ellis Island,” Barton said. “They wanted to put up a display of what the immigrants arrived with. We’ve shipped them to Colonial Williamsburg, the Smithsonian and a lot of individual buyers, ‘This looks just like my grandfather’s suitcase.”

Being in Maine, he said, has helped his brand: “There’s a perception that if it’s made in Maine, it’s made correctly.” 

Shop dog Indie is featured prominently on the website, where Barton’s had tongue-in-cheek fun with many of the listings.

Under a picture of snakeskin: “Whip snakes are prized for their very even scale size. OK, not really, we made that up, but the scales really do seem to be about the same everywhere.”

Barton is in the office most mornings by 5:30 a.m., printing orders by 6 a.m. and mostly works alone.

“I’m supposed to be a multimillionaire by this point in the game, have a yacht and a ‘copter,” he quipped. “I’ve got some more work to do.”

He likes that over 18 years the shop has stayed true to its original vision.

“I still think of the leather side of the business as a recycling program,” Barton said. “Everything we have here would have ended up getting sold off for next to nothing or dumped, which doesn’t make sense to me. I enjoy this, probably because I built it from scratch.”

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Churchill Barton’s interest in scrap leather came about when he worked for an environmental firm and saw firsthand how much leather was being thrown away by a Maine-based shoe manufacturer. That shoe manufacturer has since moved its operations to Mexico. 

Churchill Barton’s wife, Amanda, runs a trunk shop at Brettuns Village Leather in Lewiston. She refurbishes old trunks and suitcases, and sells parts such as buckles and leather straps. 

Churchill Barton’s daughters started an antique key business before they headed off to college. Barton, who owns Brettuns Village Leather in Lewiston, said the money his daughters made helped pay their college tuition. 

Rolls of scrap leather sit in Churchill Barton’s Lewiston shop.  

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