What Now? Old Town’s Leather Leader

| April 3, 2012 | 0 Comments

Dennis Toler at work.

There’s something about Dennis Toler – he just looks like a leather guy. He’s rugged, he’s brawny; he’s got good humor and a big smile. And, for 40 years, he’s had a super niche in Toler’s Leather Depot in Old Town State Historic Park – the “go-to” place for authentic leather goods.

While he was born in Norfolk Va., Denny (his friends call him that) has been a San Diegan since he was two. He has a son, Orean, and he has  been married to Heidi for 35 years. He was in the Marine Corps for three years, and after being wounded in Viet Nam, he majored in technical illustrating in Jr. College.

Today, In Old Town, he’s added to his enterprises; Toler’s Boot & Shoe, and The Johnson House.

And, the man knows his leather:

 LW:  Not only is leather itself “history,” but Toler’s in Old Town is “history,” too!  How, why did you get into this business?

DT: Blue grass music and my friends brought me to Old Town. We used to play in Squibob Square in a shop called “The Blue Guitar,” owned by Ed Douglas.  As part of his business, Ed did leather work making guitar straps, belts and purses. When Ed left Old Town in 1970, I had an opportunity to take over a part of his store – approximately 2000 sq. ft. I began doing my own leather work, calling the business “Latigo, Ltd.”

LW:   Are you artistic yourself?  When we think of custom, or high quality leather goods, I envision unique, maybe exquisite craftsmanship?

DT: I created all my own patterns and designs for the purses and belts I made – – one of a kind, one at a time.  But that was not enough to make a successful business; I needed to stock more products, offer more choices.

LW:  Would you like to name a few of your leather artists, the brands you carry?

"I am always looking for "Made in America" products"

DT:  I’m always looking for “Made in America” products. Some that I’m pleased to carry are, “Head on Home Hats,” “Victoria Leather, “ Stonehead Leather,” and others.

LW:  How has the business changed over the years?  What did your shoppers want then, that they want less of today – and vice versa?

DT:  Shoppers today want less of the “one of a kind” hand-crafted items.  Today, the trend is for quality commercial items at reasonable prices.

LW:  What are your perennial best sellers?

DT:  Handbags and belts!  They’ve always been my mainstays.

LW:  What does one have to know to shop for leather wisely?

DT:  Always look at labels on products – and find a knowledgeable, salesperson who can talk intelligently about the merits of your choices. if you’re looking for “ Made in USA,” check your labels! Most all American products are stamped on the back.

LW:  Can you give us a brief history of leather artistry?

DT:  Leather artistry has always been a practical necessity. In ancient times it was for survival – it kept the feet safe and bodies warm. In 1830, the tack store was like today’s hardware store, or the gas station. It had everything you needed to keep you mobile – harnesses for horses, buggy-whips and seats, holsters, boots – leather items were all over, and were essentials.

LW:  How many leather products do you yourself use and/or wear?

DT:  I wear leather belts, shoes, vest, a wristband – and of course, I have heated leather seats in my truck!

LW: Forth year – that’s some credit to you. What ARE you doing right – especially in this recent economic turndown, when so many businesses have closed their doors?

DT:  Location plays a big part in the success of any business; The environment of a State Historic Park fits my kind of specialty store very well – Also, a little longevity doesn’t hurt! Add a good reputation and repeat customers.

LW:  Are you (still) passionate about leather-goods?  By now, you’ve “owned” the category,  What do you do in your spare time?

DT:  I’m still passionate about leather; however, stronger passions now are music and classic cars!  I’m the bass man in two bands. In one, we play swing from the 1940’s; the other is “Java Jazz” in which we play contemporary music– we’re for hire!  Also, I’ve recently finished restoring a 1964 Austin Healy – it’s taken me seven years.

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