Friday, September 6, 2002

Leather Cellar vs. The Cockpit Project

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #190, September 6, 2002)

Not too long ago, when a Twin Cities leatherman or leatherwoman wanted to do some serious leather shopping, the first thing they did was get on a plane. I used to shop at leather stores in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Chicago, because there wasn’t an actual leather store in the Twin Cities.

Now there are two: Leather Cellar and The Cockpit Project. Where did they come from, and how do they compare? After discussing each store separately I’ll examine the larger leather retail picture.

Leather Cellar

Leather Cellar started life in 1996 as Back in Black Leather and later was known as Fit to a T Leather. Located in the lower level of the late Club Metro, it was the Twin Cities’ first real, live, honest-to-goodness leather store. After going through a series of name and ownership changes, and a location change due to the closing of Club Metro, Leather Cellar is now located at 2315B Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis, below the Shoe-A-New shoe-repair shop.

Co-owners Jennifer Langland and Lars and Mark McCrary are building on and fine-tuning the formula that served Back in Black and Fit to a T Leather so well: a comprehensive, well-rounded selection of quality leather and leather-related merchandise.

For anyone who was ever in the Club Metro store space, the new location will feel familiar and comfortable (“except that people can no longer shop with a drink in their hand,” notes Langland). Glass display cases and counters hold jewelry and smaller items. Apparel is displayed on the walls and on racks in the remaining floor space.

In addition to leather/kink/fetish apparel (for both men and women) and a wide selection of dungeon gear, the merchandise mix includes T-shirts, gay- and leather-pride items, and toys and novelties. Fellow leather lesbians told Langland they didn’t like shopping for “adult” novelties at sex shops (they described the stores’ atmosphere as “slimy and disgusting”). Langland takes pride in having created a comfortable, welcoming and non-intimidating retail atmosphere for her customers.

Stores hours are Tuesday-Saturday, noon to 7 PM. In addition to their storefront location Leather Cellar is carrying on its tradition of displaying and selling merchandise at area nightspots. You can find them on Sundays at The Tank (the leatherspace in the backroom of The Saloon), Over the Rainbow on Mondays, Lucy’s on Wednesdays, Trikkx on the second and fourth Fridays of every month, and The Minneapolis Eagle on Fridays. (Hours at each location are 9 P.M. to closing.) Call Leather Cellar for more information.

The Cockpit Project

Step into The Cockpit Project (3015 Lyndale Ave. S.) and you’ll feel like you were instantly transported to Amsterdam, Berlin or Paris. House/trance music pumps and pulses as it fills the narrow, sleek store. At the front of the store, sales clerk Justin stands behind the cash register in front of an amazing piece of contemporary art (a pair of chaps, rear view) by Richard Luka. The predominantly black leather is set against clean white walls and fixtures with accents of bright yellow and shiny chrome. The space, inspired by a trip to Europe, was designed by co-owners Wil and Molly. Wil says they liked the openness of European attitudes toward sex and designed their store to “open things up and take the smut out of sex.”

The self-described purveyor of “luxury leather & latex” has an interesting merchandise mix that includes top-end fetish apparel from cutting-edge designers along with serious dungeon gear and accessories. There are a few educational and artistic leather books but no porn; Wil explains his customers “know they aren’t coming to a sex shop.”

In keeping with its European decor, The Cockpit Project is the exclusive dealer in the United States for several lines of leather from all over Europe, including Poland and Amsterdam. To name just one: Wil is proud to carry apparel by David Spain, a designer from London who creates fabulous fantasywear in combinations of leather, metal and lycra.

Wil and Molly were selling this kind of merchandise at Lava Lounge for over five years before opening The Cockpit Project. Wil says that means he’s had plenty of time to “weed out the bad suppliers and keep the good ones.” That also means The Cockpit Project has access to a network of sources and suppliers for alterations and custom creations, whether fetish apparel or dungeon equipment.

The Cockpit Project is open Thursday-Saturday from noon to 8 PM and Sunday from noon to 6 PM or by appointment. Call for more information.

So, Where to Shop?

To limit the question of “where to shop?” to these two leather stores is to miss the larger leather retail picture, which includes shopping-mall leather stores like Wilson’s for apparel (good luck finding a bar vest at Wilson’s, though) and area sex shops for toys and accessories. And then there’s the mind-boggling array of merchants selling on the Web, which has made leather and other kink/fetish-related merchandise easier than ever to find and to buy.

But while websites in some ways bring buyers and sellers closer together, in other ways they keep them maddeningly farther apart. In effect I must order (and pay for) that leather jock or flogger while it’s still inside that glass display case known as my computer screen. Then, in a couple of days or weeks I will finally be allowed to judge the actual item and see how it feels—or if it actually fits. (With my mail-order shopping luck, it probably won’t.)

It’s much more efficient to have an item in front of you, inspect it, feel it, and try it on or try it out. It’s nice to deal face-to-face with helpful merchants and sales clerks who know the merchandise. They are experts who can offer the kind of valuable advice, feedback and recommendations you can’t get from a website.

How do Cellar Leather and The Cockpit Project compare? Some of the differences between them arise from the selection of merchandise each store carries. For example, The Cockpit Project sells latexwear while, at least at this writing, Leather Cellar does not. Leather Cellar, being gay-owned, sells gay- and leather-pride merchandise that The Cockpit Project doesn’t offer.

But despite their differences, both businesses are locally owned. Both are intensely focused on, driven by, and committed to their customers. Both base their merchandise selections on what their customers want and request. Both are competing earnestly for your leather dollar.

Who wins the competition? You do. You have two great stores that can satisfy all your leather/fetish needs, and you don’t even have to get on a plane. Visit them both. You’ll undoubtedly find plenty you want—and even need—at both places.

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