Success In The Bag Craftsman Started New Career After Fleeing Lebanon
Like a scene from the children’s fairy tale The Elves and The Shoemaker, Elie Abdelahad hand cuts pieces of smooth, thick leather and stacks them in piles to await their destiny.
And like the shoemaker, he proudly displays his finished products in his shop window for all to see.
But Abdelahad makes handbags, not shoes, and he gets no help from the elves.
Since 1989, the Palmer Township man has been plying his trade in the Easton area, first in the city’s downtown and since the end of last year, in a small shop at 1642 Washington St. in Wilson.
The glass storefront makes no secret of what is inside as tens upon tens of gloriously fashioned handbags can be seen from the street sitting elegantly on wooden shelves.
Simple, gold stick on letters announce the shop, John’s Bags, named for Abdelahad’s 5 year old son.
Upon entering the shop, the earthy smell of leather penetrates the nostrils as the richness of the handbags captivates the eye. Further back into the rented store, Abdelahad keeps his tidy, and impressively clean, workroom, where he spends long days cutting, folding, gluing and sewing roll after roll of top quality leather into handbags that would please even the most discriminating taste.
It’s a peaceful setting, and anyone watching the gentle 33 year old man at work could tell he genuinely loves his trade. It’s in his blood.
“I like the job,” said Abdelahad, whose voice carries a heavy Middle Eastern accent. “Even if somebody offered me a job with more money, I wouldn’t take it.”
But life wasn’t always so tranquil for Abdelahad, who fled his na tive Beirut when he was just 18 and war was raging in Lebanon. At the time, he was working as a welder in the heating, plumbing and air conditioning businesses.
“It is hard. It is not easy to get out,” he said. “I left right on time when the war started. I tried to start a life here to make me stay here.”
His first stop was Jordan. There, he was able to get a visa that allowed him to travel to New York, where he settled in a Lebanese community in Brooklyn.
“When they come to this country, everybody looks for the people from his community,” said Abdelahad, who befriended a family that ran a large pocketbook manufacturing business in Lebanon.
When the family came to New York, they re opened their business there and took Abdelahad under their wing, teaching him the craft that he quickly perfected.
“In the beginning, it was just plain bags. There wasn’t a fashion in it,” he said. “Around 1982 1983, the business was so slow and then we started looking at the European styles. Then, the business started to grow because everybody started doing the fashion.
“That’s what kept the business growing for everybody,” said Abdelahad. “Otherwise, nobody could survive because of the imports.”
He married his wife Elizabeth and moved to Easton in 1986. They had two children, John and Anthony,1.
For two years, he commuted to New York to work, doing most of the design and finishing work on the handbags for his friends, and going to major department stores to get ideas for his creations.
“They carried top quality, so you had to compete with them,” he said.
Tired of the long rides to and from the Big Apple, he decided to open his own business in Easton, and with help from his friends whose handbag operation was by then bringing in millions he did.
At the time, he didn’t have the money to buy a cutting machine, so once a week he would drive into New York, pick up the cut leather from his friends and bring it back to Easton, where he would sew it together.
Through his friends, Abdelahad made contacts with retailers around the country and soon he had contracts to supply purses to boutiques and department stores in the United States and Puerto Rico.
With help from his brother in law and salesman George Hossein, Abdelahad now works just for himself, churning out about 100 pocketbooks a week.
Although at times a bit tedious, his job is more of a hobby than work. He said it takes him about an hour to put together a standard handbag, longer if more detail is involved.