Trading banks for bags, Williamsburg man crafts a new career in leather goods

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Artie Shell was fairly shocked to receive a cease-and-desist letter from a major Texas-based leather company. He was ordered to stop production on a bag that essentially replicated the Texans’ style. He quickly agreed.

He recalls the situation with a laugh. “They probably spent $10,000 in lawyers. They thought I was huge.” They’d done research on Shell’s Mascon Leather and presumed from its large social media following that the company was a multimillion-dollar operation.

A credit union career, a master’s in education – Artie Shell found he preferred “piddling around with leather,” and found he was good at it (and more). Customers worldwide agree.

But there is no big production. Shell, 47, is the sole founder, craftsman, marketer and salesman behind Mascon Leather, which he runs from a workshop in his Williamsburg home. A lifelong Peninsula resident and third-generation brick mason, he ditched his credit union job and turned away from a master’s degree in education to start his leather business a little more than two years ago.

He now has a waiting list nearly a year long and takes orders from places as far as China, Germany and Australia. But it’s still a one-man show.

“People keep saying I should hire an assistant, and I keep thinking, ‘I’m not really serious. I’m not a real player in this field,’ ” he says. “I kind of got lucky. I got accidentally good at leather.”

Shell is no stranger to working with his hands. He comes from a family of builders. Growing up in Yorktown, he often helped out in the business started by his grandfather, Mas-Con construction – which is where he gets his own company’s name.

His father, he says, built every house the family ever lived in, so he followed suit, buying a plot of land in Williamsburg on a whim at age 17. He’d seen the tree-covered spot every morning on his route to Tabb High School and one day called about its availability. “Everyone else was buying stereos and cars. I was making land payments,” he says with a laugh.

In the early 2000s he cleared off the trees and built a house, where he now lives with his wife and their 16-year-old son. The couple also has a son who’s 28.

Shell’s career path was never a straight line. While earning a bachelor’s in business from Christopher Newport University, he worked in construction and at a few veterinary hospitals. Then he got a job as a loan officer at Langley Federal Credit Union, where he worked for more than two decades as a branch manager and court representative. “It paid the bills,” he says, dryly.

His original plan to escape a life of banking was that master’s in education. He got one from the College of William & Mary – including a stint at Harvard for a graduate internship – but then started “piddling around with leather.”

His displeasure with the lack of a front pocket on his briefcase led him to attempt to make a better one. He found sewing and cutting the leather to be therapeutic, so he thought he’d try to make a wallet next. Gradually people started asking him to make wallets for them. “The orders kept coming. I was two weeks behind, then three weeks behind.”

Shell would work the leather before and after his day job at the credit union. Eventually he had a long enough list of orders that quitting his day job seemed like an option, albeit a daunting one. “I was so scared the orders would stop and I would have to go to Home Depot and stack lumber or whatever. But it kept getting bigger and bigger.”

He officially started his business full time in early 2017 and now makes everything from wallets and bags to valet trays and mouse pads. Prices range from about $125 to $3,500. Many of the wallet designs have literary-inspired names like Gatsby, Walden and Twain.

And almost as impressive as his leather is his marketing skill. Using only an iPhone, Shell has managed to create a look and feel for his Instagram account that has garnered him more than 47,000 followers. It’s not easy. He spends hours getting his shots right, in his back yard or a small converted photo room where he also stores an assortment of props, such as whiskey bottles. He figures he spends up to a third of his time on photography and marketing.

Recent Instagram photos include a shot of a satchel hanging from a gate in Colonial Williamsburg, a bride carrying a bag on the beach, and a wallet on a table next to a skull wearing eyeglasses. He also posts photos of models in Mascon-branded clothes. He and his wife – who also works from home, in a makeshift hair salon – stay on the hunt for unique props at antique stores. “It’s fun,” he says.

These days, Shell still starts work at 5 a.m., stopping to take his son to school and walk the dog. Then it’s back to the workshop, with a large central worktable, lime-green walls and dozens of rolls of leather.

“I’ve been holding my breath for years just thinking, is this going to end?” he says. “But I love every second of it.”