I’ve driven by the building thousands of times and each time I do, that sign conjures up images of world travelers waving from the gangplank of a steamship in the 1920s. Last week, I dropped by this mysterious shop to have a look.
Not a steamer trunk in sight–nor were there matching sets of luggage pieces stacked like Matryoshka dolls. Instead, my eyes feasted on an assortment of fashionable soft bags: totes, shoulder bags, all the way down to clutch purses. Each were a patchwork of tapestry fabrics in complimentary colors and textures, bedecked with faux gemstones cut into modern shapes.
The manufacturing area can be openly viewed from the retail side, which lends the store the ambience of a trendy Soho design studio.
The Ebullient Owner
Saundra Duncan is no rookie in the entrepreneurial game. Her first enterprise was a day spa called ‘Rumors’ located on Beaverdam Road in Asheville.
“I grew up in the country, so I had to learn to make my own clothes and cut hair,” says Saundra, “so when I tired of being a stay at home Mom, I thought ‘I’ll open a hair salon’, which I did.”
Always full of ideas and the energy to back them up, she couldn’t just provide hair services; Rumors sold clothing as well. Then Saundra decided to build the enterprise into a day spa, adding soothing skin treatments and bodywork such as yoga and massage into the amenities lineup.
The Beautician licensing arm of North Carolina 1988 wasn’t quite sure how to deal with a business that offered massage therapy under the same roof as facials and hair styling.
“I guess I was ahead of my time,” quips Saundra. “Eventually, we got the whole thing straightened out; I had to get a set of special licenses.”
She realized that it was impossible to cut hair and run the spa business at the same time, so Saundra put the word out that she needed a manager. A friend had an idea.
Friend of a Friend
Years earlier, while Saundra was raising toddlers into elementary school students, Alexie Norton was employed by Banner House, a large handbag manufacturer located in WNC. The company supplied women’s handbags to all the large department stores: Dillard’s, Belk, J.C. Penney and Saks.
Around the time that Saundra opened Rumors, Banner House’s business was deteriorating, with the usual plant closures and layoffs. To keep her job, Alexie was transferred out of the retail department to the manufacturing floor where she learned how to cut fabric, read patterns and sew the heavy materials used in bag manufacture.
Banner House looked like it was on its last legs, which had Alexie thinking that she’d better find another employer. A friend suggested that she talk to a woman named Saundra who needed a business manager.
The two met, a deal was struck, and Alexie started managing Rumors. Six months later, she realized that she’d made a terrible mistake; the spa business didn’t agree with her. Saundra was sympathetic but didn’t want to let her go; they’d become such good friends and she had a hunch that Alexie had other talents that were underutilized at Rumors.
Alexie volunteered that she knew how to make bags and understood the retail side of that business. Saundra and her husband just happened to own a building over on Liberty Street, which was sitting, empty–amazing! A defining moment of cooperation and communication; another small business was born.
Within weeks, sewing tables were built, sewing machines were purchased, and Alexie was running a new venture called Liberty Street Baggage.
Their product line was mainly duffels in cotton prints and novelty themes, with a large focus on the child market. Liberty St. Baggage began to enjoy a brisk business. Products were mainly sold via kiosks in retail areas. They had a stall in the Kress Building, one at Irongate in Hendersonville, Interiors in Biltmore Village, and one at Town Square in Waynesville.
During slow times, the small company did contract sewing for other manufacturers in WNC. The bag business was run entirely by Alexie, with Saundra being her silent employer.
“I just showed up when there were checks to be written,” chuckles Saundra. “Alexie really ran the bag business for me, while I cut hair and ran Rumors.”
Until fate intervened.
Six years ago, while working on a client at the day spa, Saundra became entangled in some electrical cords and took a bad fall. She broke her arm in three places. With only one good arm at her disposal, Saundra couldn’t cut hair or work on the computer. The downtime was tough on this dynamo, because there was no way to harness her creative side.
“In the middle of it all, I decided to reinvent Me,” says Saundra. “Rumors was closed, so that I could become more involved with Liberty Street.”
Saundra steered her bag product line away from novelty duffels to focus more on modern hand and shoulder bags. Whatever crazy bag idea Saundra came up with, Alexie made it a reality.
“This product line is called Smart Pack Sac!” says Saundra. Her hands move in rapid circles set to the tapping of her bracelets.
The bag she holds is covered in a tapestry weight fabric and looks like all the other highly fashionable shoulder bags in the store, with a few exceptions.
“See, these straps attach to the hand-holds on a wheelchair or the front bar of a walker or scooter. No more draping a knapsack over the seat back of the chair, this bag is designed with a purpose”.
She proceeds to show me grommets where an oxygen tube can be tastefully routed through the top of the bag. Mesh side pockets have been sized to accept feeding pumps, water bottles or digital speech devices. The bag’s interior has compartments that give easy access to the contents.
“This bag is designed to not get in the way of anyone moving or folding the chair,” beams Saundra, “bus drivers and caregivers love them because they make their job much easier!”
The new product line for the disabled was conceived in the Liberty St. showroom years ago. Jan Zyboyovski, a regular customer of the shop loved the quality of the handbags she bought there and wished that someone would design similar bags that cater to the needs of the disabled.
Jan is a social worker and support counselor in the Buncombe County Progressive Education Program, which provides services to children whose special needs preclude them from attending school in a regular classroom. The children are challenged with autism, cerebral palsy, mental disorders and countless medical syndromes; which mean most of them are confined to wheelchairs.
People with crippling disorders tend to travel with more personal effects than the rest of us. Some carry diapers, some have feeding pumps, others oxygen bottles or diabetic supplies. Many carry a Dyna Vox to speak through. Additionally, all are required to carry a complete set of medical documents where ever they go.
When a disabled person attends school their personal cargo is compounded: books, papers, pens, keys, makeup, cell phone, food, water bottle, glasses and wallet. Most people with full use of their bodies would have a difficult time toting all this gear, in addition piloting a wheelchair. Children in the PEP group do not have the strength or muscle control to deal with a heavy bag placed on their lap.
How do their parents and caretakers deal with this? Improvisation. They purchase book bags and backpacks from the shelves of department stores, which is problematic right off the bat. All of these bags are designed to be worn on the back of a human or over the shoulder. When loaded with all the necessary gear and thrown over the back of a chair, they distort the seat back, which alters the seating position and can eventually lead to pressure points in the child’s back.
The bulging bag makes it hard on the caregivers and parents who must get them off and on buses. Finally, the standard book bag or knapsack does not have compartments to fit all the unusually shaped medical devices, so caregivers and children must root around in the overstuffed bag to find things.
“This really is a problem for the kids in our care,” says Jan.
Just Like The Other Kids
Saundra readily accepted the challenge to design a bag for youngsters and adults with special needs. She had a shop full of lush fabrics to inspire her and the know-how to create a product that would last. She especially wanted the school children to have a bag that they could proudly carry to class or hook on wheelchairs, scooters or walkers. She wanted them to look and feel great–just like the other kids.
She and Alexie spent hundreds of hours researching the features, which they would incorporate into the ultimate bag. They spent time with Jan and her students; they also visited disabled veterans at the VA hospital, interviewed bus drivers for the disabled as well as caregivers.
Prototypes were distributed to some of Jan’s students for feedback, and the product went through a few more design alterations. The net result was named the Smart Pack Sac, and it hit the market with rave reviews.
“The bags are phenomenal,” says Jan. “They make life easier for caregivers, but most importantly, the Smart Pack Sac returns a sense of dignity to the children.”
Saundra allowed the children to pick their own fabric. One girl loved pink; one of the boys chose a military camo look.
Product development has taken two years, and Saundra has funded the effort out of her savings. She donated the bags for the PEP students and a group from The Cliffs at Walnut Cove donated 20 more.
Saundra has also reached out to the VA Hospital, donating more of her product to special needs veterans. Recently, Liberty St. Baggage gave Smart Pack Sacs to members of the veterans Wheelchair Basketball team.
With a product that’s so well received by customers, you’d think that the orders for them would be flooding in the door, but that’s not the case. It turns out that the people who could benefit most from Liberty St. Baggage products cannot buy them, as their medical expenses are covered by Medicaid. Bags are considered personal effects not medical equipment. Being on a fixed income all but obliterates most of the disabled from buying Saundra’s bags.
Now that the product line is out of the research phase, Saundra and Alexie are hitting the market in multiple fronts. A new website has been launched: www.smartpacksac.com where customers can order their bag and customize its looks.
They have also approached the Wounded Warrior Foundation, and the Veterans Administration to see if one of these organizations could create a strong enough endorsement that would allow disabled veterans access to this great product.
Business has been slow since 2009, but Liberty is getting traction with the higher end bags, which are mostly sold via retail. To increase foot traffic, they plan on relocating to the Grove Arcade this fall. Liberty St. is also upgrading their web presence with a plan to drive sales with e-commerce. All of these strategies will hopefully grow Saundra’s market share.
Saundra and Alexie have been operating Liberty Street Baggage for more than 23 years, producing high quality, fashion forward hand and shoulder bags for discriminating customers. All of their products are hand made here in Western North Carolina, where they employ a network of women to sew their products. Aside from helping the disabled, expanding her product line fulfills another dream: putting more women to work.
“I believe in all our products, but I am especially proud of Smart Pack Sacs. They make life easier for the disabled and those who care for them,” says Saundra. “If the orders take off, then we’ll get to hire more women to make the product. I would love to put more women to work.”