State worker reinvents himself, Sacramento with handmade shoes

Video: Benjamins Shoes made for you

Benjamin Schwartz, owner of Benjamins Shoe Corporation, creates custom hand-made shoes in his shop located under the Artist Warehouse Lofts in Sacramento, Calif. Video by Autumn Payne/apayne@sacbee.com. Music: "Plain Loafer" by Kevin MacLeod
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Benjamin Schwartz, owner of Benjamins Shoe Corporation, creates custom hand-made shoes in his shop located under the Artist Warehouse Lofts in Sacramento, Calif. Video by Autumn Payne/apayne@sacbee.com. Music: "Plain Loafer" by Kevin MacLeod

Benjamin Schwartz has long been into a style, a 30-year-old man rooted in the classics. He likes cardigan sweaters, wooden tennis rackets, old-school cocktails, Miles Davis. He competes in a bocce ball league, on a team called Joanie Loves Bocce.

Somewhere along the way, his passion for menswear led him to an interest in shoes, which prompted him to buy a highly detailed textbook on the lost art of how to make them. With a pair of Vans, pieces of fabric and some basic shoemaking tools, he began to figure it out in his spare time.

That was six years ago. Six weeks ago, he opened his own shoemaking business in the public market area of the new Warehouse Artist Lofts on R Street. Benjamins features a line of shoes that combine the casual look of a boat shoe with the upscale aesthetic of a men’s dress slipper. Made in a range of fabrics, including the coveted Loro Piana cashmere from Italy, Benjamins shoes feature leather laces, a rubber sole and all the attention to detail one would expect from a one-man operation. The shoes sell for $195 to $245, depending on the fabric and other details. They are made in sizes from 51/2 to 131/2.

Schwartz is the only commercial shoemaker in Sacramento and, likely, far beyond. In recent weeks, Schwartz left his job of seven years working in affordable housing at the State Treasurer’s Office and launched a business with the idea of making shoes by hand in Sacramento and selling them around the world.

“It was terrifying,” Schwartz said at the idea of leaving his full-time job. “I had a good job, but I can’t sit at a desk for 30 years. Even though my job was very rewarding, I didn’t get to do anything creative. This is the time to take a risk. It’s all or nothing at this point.”

A big part of the appeal of Benjamins is the artisan approach, a shoe with potentially universal appeal that’s made in Sacramento.

“It’s part of what makes this different,” he said. “I’m from Sacramento and Sacramento is a manufacturing town, not a cowtown like everybody says.”

While the new wave of growth in urban Sacramento is fueled largely by restaurants, bars and salons, some say Schwartz’s concept could help inspire more small-scale, bespoke manufacturing.

Jake Favour, who designed the Public Market area at the Warehouse Artist Lofts and helped put together the collection of businesses, said he was immediately taken by Schwartz and his vision for Benjamins. It didn’t take long before he was convinced a shoemaker would be the right fit for a market that includes Fishface Poke Bar by chef Billy Ngo of Kru sushi fame; a vintage and new clothing store called Old Gold; and Kechmara Designs, a Moroccan rug store.

“There was something very compelling about Ben,” said Favour, a brand and design consultant, recalling his early encounters with Schwartz. “He knew what the future of apparel was in America and that it dovetails with this idea that people in Sacramento are craving local. As we were developing the concept for WAL, we made a commitment that this has to be all local. We were adamant about building a community that was all about localism, supporting local business and, ideally, people making products right here.”

Schwartz says sales have been brisk in the early weeks of Benjamins. While the shoes have strong local ties, a big portion of the market is expected to be online and international. His shoes have already been featured in Monocle, an international magazine devoted to design, fashion and foreign affairs. Already, Schwartz has fielded scores of online orders from overseas.

But he also wants the shop on R Street to be alive with customers and browsers. Situated in the back of the public market, the shop features a retail space up front with the manufacturing area toward the back. It’s all very intimate and casual; Schwartz’s idea is to work on the shoes and interact with the customers when they wander in.

“We’re selling through our website and we’re marketing online,” Schwartz said. “If it does well out there, we think it will do well here, too.”

Schwartz says he will need to sell 30 pairs of shoes a month for Benjamins to be viable. He is already busy enough that he has hired an apprentice, Jason Thorpe, who is learning the shoemaking craft.

The shoes themselves, Schwartz says, have plenty of versatility. They’re casual enough to be worn with, say, trousers and a sweater, and dressy enough to look appropriate with a sport coat and jeans. But he says the shoes probably wouldn’t work with a full suit and tie. Though they are made of cashmere and other soft fabrics, Schwartz says the materials are sturdy and water-resistant, and they’re built with a canvas toebox on the inside to provide structure and durability.

Some customers, such as Philip Claypool of San Francisco, have already purchased multiple pairs.

“I think his product is absolutely superb – everything from the fabric, to the composition, to the support in the shoe,” Claypool said. “It’s a very elegant shoe. I wear it with a blue blazer and khakis or I can wear it on a casual basis. It’s the most comfortable shoes I own. ... It’s custom-made, one of a kind, and I think it’s brilliant – especially for the price point.”

Still, Schwartz realizes he will have to sell many on the idea of a cashmere shoe. Favour believes Schwartz’s own sense of style will help sell the product.

“There’s something about a tailored lifestyle that he really believes in,” Favour said. “He has a sense of quality and a curatorial approach to his own lifestyle. For someone who is 30 to be that savvy is pretty striking. He has a maturity that transcends his age. He’s kind of like your hip uncle. He has a classic, early 20th-century men’s style and he does it with a sense of ease.”

Blair Anthony Robertson: 916-321-1099, @Blarob

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