Tanner’s Alley Leather Design Studio in Morgantown has earned a patina it wears well.
When Charlie McEwuen was in the Army, the sheath for his hunting knife wore out. He had access to a craft shop so, calling to mind his leatherworking class from Sabraton Junior High in Morgantown, he made one. Pretty soon he was spending his free time filling orders—a sheath for this guy, a wallet for that one.
“When my time was up I thought, should I go back and finish my geology degree, or open a leather store?” McEwuen recalls. “That sounded more glamorous so, at the age of 21, thinking I knew everything I needed to know, I started a business.” That was 1976. “Of course, over the following 45 years, I proceeded to learn what I needed to know.”
His first spot, a roofed-over alley space in Morgantown that today is part of Blue Moose cafe, gave the business its name: Tanner’s Alley. McEwuen soon found a bigger shop at the corner of Pleasant and Spruce. There, he added shoe repair to his services. He moved to bustling High Street in 1988 and stayed.
A lively openness to new ideas has helped McEwuen weather changes in styles and shopping habits. A WVU fashion design major who interned with him in the early 2000s, for example, had ideas for women’s handbags that looked wild to him. “I thought, ‘I’ll humor her and see what happens,’” he says. To his surprise, the eye-catching fashions sold immediately, drawing new customers and launching a long collaboration.
Some years later, a man in Florida wanted custom pieces made from alligator skins he owned. “There was nothing on my website about working with exotics,” McEwuen says. “He must have just liked my workmanship.” The project taught him that he enjoyed the variety and sophistication of alligator, and a job well done led to references that became a significant market.
One year, a New Year’s Eve–themed window display led to another change. “All these college-age women came in wanting to buy the dresses on the mannequins,” McEwuen laughs. “At first I said they weren’t for sale, but we got so many requests that I said, ‘Just sell them—we’ll get more.’ We started carrying some women’s clothing, and that’s worked pretty well.”
Of course, the heart of the business is briefcases, handbags, and luggage of McEwuen’s own design. His Satchel, an updated classic he’s made for 30 years, is his No. 1 seller. He crafts around 50 bags a year.
Visitors have told McEwuen he could make it in New York City or on fashionable Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. Lucky locals cherish his pieces. “One customer, a professor, came in recently with an underarm portfolio I made. He must have bought it over 30 years ago,” McEwuen says. “He’d carried it literally every day, and it was beginning to fall apart. He said, ‘Look—I’m about to retire. Can you make it last one more year?’ So we did that.”
As a downtown retailer, McEwuen has always given time to organizations—most recently to Main Street Morgantown and the City Parking Authority. “I’m downtown 70-plus hours a week for the past 45 years,” he says. “I want to do anything I can to make it the best place it can possibly be.” McEwuen still enjoys the glamor of the craft he chose over geology 45 years ago. He feels blessed by the talented people who have shared his studio and by the variety of projects that have come his way, everything from historically accurate period clothing to the repair of a costume boot for a Star Wars movie actor. And he still finds a thrill in developing new products. “We can go from idea to prototype to seeing how it sells in a day or two,” he says. “That’s exciting to me.” 416 High Street, 304.292.0707, tannersalleyleather.com