The showroom at Queen City Dry Goods is decorated with racks of coats and belts, with displays of shoes and boots, wallets and smartphone cases, the air rich with the smell of new leather. Near the back are shelved well-worn volumes on the art of shoemaking. Beyond are other rooms where stand rows of idle sewing machines and wracks piled with folds of leather and cloth, tool benches and worktables. It’s part store, part workshop, part factory, a place where past and present merge, where the tradition of craftsmanship meets modern machinery and design. It is this spirit, this happy marriage of anachronisms, that embodies Matt Renna’s philosophy as a business owner and an artisan.
His philosophy is reflected in the name Queen City Dry Goods, not the first half, which is merely a nod to Burlington, but the second, which evokes a time in US history when dry good stores specializing in clothing and leather-made goods were a staple in many American towns. In taking up that name, Renna is saying something about not only what he makes but in how he makes it. It’s a philosophy that stitches together both fabric and business alike.
Though Queen City Dry Goods sells a variety of leather-made items, Renna started out strictly as a shoemaker. In ’94, fresh out the University of Wisconsin–Madison with a degree in anthropology, Renna and his girlfriend, Heather, set out for a three-month bike tour of Italy and Greece. While most tourists might be caught up in the art and architecture, the quaint cafes and the Mediterranean cuisine, something else made a lasting impression on Renna: shoemaker shops in the narrow streets of Florence, sandal makers on Crete and the open-air workshops of cobblers and crafters in Athens.
These visions of old-time European craftsmanship stayed with Renna once he returned to the States, fueling a desire to work with his hands, to create. “I wanted to make something. Produce something,” says Renna. Perhaps he was driven by this ideal when he and Heather decided to transplant themselves from Massachusetts to Vermont, and Renna immediately started working for Williston furniture maker Brian Jones. Renna worked there for a time, and even considered learning his employer’s craft, but something about shoemaking called to him.
Without the guiding grace of YouTube — which he says would have eased the process immeasurably — he had to scavenge for knowledge, acquiring a few books and basic tools, consulting with Vermont’s nearly nonexistent population of shoemakers (he found an exception in Dan Freeman of Middlebury) and learning through trial and error.
Renna created his first pair of shoes on his front porch. The process started with the last, or rather a last, the name for a foot-shaped piece of wood or plastic that a shoemaker subtly reshapes, plastering scraps of leather to it matches the foot in need of shoeing. Once he had finished his own last, Renna designed and patterned the pair, cutting and sewing it by hand. A finished pattern looks more like a pair of wings than a shoe; it’s only when the pattern is stretched over the last and the sole is attached, that the shoe finally takes shape.
While that first pair was a little uncomfortable, says Renna, he discovered shoemaking at its essence, and he found the craft itself was a perfect fit. “There’s something really cool about working with a form,” says Renna. “Footwear more than anything else is really interesting because it’s very three dimensional, it’s very sculptural. There’s a lot of nuance to the shape, the form, but then you have some parts that are hard — the sole — and it’s dynamic. It’s an engineering challenge. It’s got to fit this one person, but then you’ve got all this room for style and detail.”
He continued to hone his skills and he was soon picking up customers, spurring him to make the leap from hobbyist to professional. Over the next twelve years, he ran several businesses in the Burlington area — a basement workshop on Cherry Street, his own atelier overlooking Church Street — crafting shoes and, eventually, expanding his product lines to include other leathers goods.
He loved the downtown scene, being right in the thick of downtown crowds, but Renna had outgrown the space. “I was bursting at the seams there,” he says. “It was hard to pull myself away.” Yet it was a necessary move in order to find a sizeable enough space to launch the Queen City Dry Goods brand. He spent a year rooming with New Duds in Winooski, until landing his own space in 2011 on Shunpike Road in Williston.
Renna says the move represents more than a change in location; it marks a change in his approach to business. Even once he had gone pro, Renna’s biggest struggle has always been making a viable living from his trade — balancing the art of handcrafting exquisite products, with the economics of modern living.
If he were to focus on a single customer and a single pair of shoes, it would take about a full workweek to create a pair of shoes from last to completed product. For a long time, Renna worked restaurant jobs to make ends meet, because making custom shoes and small batches of leather goods wasn’t enough.
“I decided I need to think much bigger,” explains Renna. “I need to think larger volume and take myself out of making every single item myself. I still make a lot of stuff here. I design and make every piece and make small batches. Some of them might get made in a factory.”
To that end, Renna is pouring his efforts into launching a line of small leather goods, a product category that includes wallets, belts, and covers for personal items and accessories — the sort of products that, once designed, are easier to mass produce.
Renna hopes his current plans for Queen City Dry Goods will help him find a better financial fit. The new space is crucial to that effort. “It’s more of a production facility,” says Renna. “I’m not planning on selling direct to consumer. I’m selling to stores on Church Street instead of being the store.”
The other part of that key to success is in placing greater emphasis on pattern making, which Renna says is the most lucrative skill that he has acquired as a shoemaker. “[Right now] that’s the crux of what I do,” says Renna. He helps design and prototype a lot of products for various clients and companies: whether a cushion for the leather chair a UVM professor is designing, the padding for an innovative device for horse rehabilitation, or a handbag for local embroidery company, Iron Thread.
Yet Renna wants to be careful about not sacrificing that original ideal that first drew him to shoemaking years ago, that is now reflected in the name of his business. It’s important that he maintain not only the product quality once associated with dry goods stores, but also the business integrity. Renna is commitment to sourcing domestic material (he gets all of his leather from a tannery in Maine) and, when production ramps up, domestic labor. “I think it’s a shame when all these factories shut down and take it over seas,” says Renna. “I think you can do both, and I think it’s a shame people totally have no desire to keep the folks working locally. It’s not that you can’t do it, there are lots of companies that do. [Some] just want the most profit.” He points to Massachusetts shoemaker, New Balance, as a company that has achieved responsible success, relying on a savvy blend of local and foreign manufacturing to remain both profitable and responsible. It’s a model he’d like to emulate.
The key, Renna says, is in finding the balance between artisanship and mass assembly, in defining and creating an ethos of entrepreneurship that pledges responsibility to the environment, to the consumer and to community, and while Renna is bereft of a shoemaking community in Vermont, in terms of likeminded entrepreneurs, he has found the ideal fit in the Vermont business community.