Saturday, August 13, 2011

Endings and beginnings

"Manufacturing is a tough business," Barry Shinder told a class of Concordia design students who were seated around his old factory workshop on St. Laurent Blvd. north of St. Viateur.

Three years ago, Barry Shinder was still running the cap-making business his father had started in 1930. A year and a half later, he went out of business.

For months, the space was only sporadically occupied.

Then, one day in February, Anne-Marie Laflamme and Catherine Métivier happened by.

"The first time we came in, we felt it was like a museum," said Laflamme, 27. "We spent all afternoon asking Barry for stories. We fell in love with the space and the story."

The tattooed students took notes, sketched or recorded the talk on mp3 players. They were there as part of an open house hosted by Laflamme and Métivier. The young women are the building's new tenants and run atelier b., a clothing label dedicated to sustainable textiles and local production.

They plan on preserving the factory's history by keeping Shinder's massive cutting table, two sewing machines and the heavy cast iron button and snap-covering tools.

Most of the sewing machines they couldn't even give away.

"We saved a few," said Laflamme. "There was one we put out with the garbage. When the garbage truck came for it, Catherine was crying like a baby."

Shinder, who's spent his whole life working those machines, is resigned to them ending up on the garbage heap. He's glad, if a little surprised, that Laflamme and Métivier want to keep some equipment.

"I just hope they do well," he said.

Last year, when Shinder had to close the business he was so anxious his weight plummeted from 195 to 130 pounds. "I'll be 65 in January," he said. "I'm computer illiterate. I was good at one thing only. Production."

Some of the students examined their nails and closed their eyes.

Shinder  took a job sewing for Magill Hat, the company that used to contract him to make caps. He decided to sell the building where he'd worked and lived for almost 60 years.

"I think I'm more relaxed now," he said, citing his current weight as 165 lbs. "Thursday I get a paycheque, and it's my money. I have an 8-4 job and that's it." Shinder now works in the Chabanel district and is moving to Little Italy.

Métivier and Laflamme plan to use the 1800-square-foot space as a store and a workshop for sewing samples.

"Just don't live to work," was Shinder's advice. "When you're in business you have no friends."

"But everyone is our friend!" said Laflamme. "It's important for us to work with people we like."

Two generations, two different business paradigms. Were the students listening?

"I still say I do the work of one and a half people," said Shinder, of his skill at producing caps for his boss. "But I only get $2-3 more than minimum wage, and I have 50 years of experience.  Still, I'm probably making more there than I ever made here."