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A leather shop that lasted: M. Steffan's Sons is 'a step back in time'

Linda L. Steffan's store has a frozen-in-time, no-frills look.

Shelves holding hundreds of boxes and drawers with faded names reach the 12-foot-high dropped ceiling at M. Steffan's Sons Inc.

Rickety wooden ladders run along a track on the sides of the store. Display cases haven't been disturbed in decades. The tile floor, once a shiny red and cream, is worn and missing surfaces.

And then there are the hard-to-find products that set the downtown Buffalo wholesale and retail shop apart from other stores: shoe dyes, polishes, edge dressings, buttons, snaps and hundreds of other items found on leather.

"There's no need to change something that's still working," said Steffan, the business' seventh-generation owner.

An early model electric wooden cash register sits out front.

"There are three safes, too," Steffan said. "They have history, but no money."

German immigrant Michael Steffan founded M. Steffan's Sons downtown in 1851. That same year, Buffalo politician Millard Fillmore was one year into the presidency, Herman Melville's "Moby Dick" was published, the first issue of the New York Times rolled off the presses and California was in the middle of a gold rush.

Linda Steffan rolls out some leather at her shop on Main Street. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Steffan married a woman from Buffalo who died within a year, and then married another local woman who gave birth to 10 children, Linda Steffan said. A stained-glass window to the left of the altar at nearby St. Louis Church was purchased by the family, she said.

The leather wholesale business grew to become one of the biggest finders on the East Coast, and remains one of the oldest still operating in the United States.

Steffan inherited the business after her father Norbert's death in 1993. She had attended an art school in Cincinnati and was working as a production artist in Buffalo when she made the career change.

The store, at 761 Main St., was originally a block away at 813 Main St., which is now a parking lot.

"They took us for urban renewal," Steffan said.

Many of the businesses that once relied on M. Steffan's and Sons, especially in the shoe industry, have closed, Steffan said. A tannery the company operated in Patchin is long gone. Harness-making is also a thing of the past.

Steffan relies on the same products – and some of the same inventory – from when her father owned the company.

"We have the old standards," said Steffan, 71, who grew up in Cheektowaga and lives in Lackawanna. "If you want a shine box, or you want good horsehair brushes, polish, waterproofing, buckles snaps – it's here."

Hundreds of small wooden drawers, brought over from the original store, are full of buckles, buttons, zippers, purse fasteners, thread on wooden spools and much more.

She holds up a buckle from one of the drawers.

"How often do you find something like that? You never know when someone might want it," she said.

"We're one of the best-kept secrets in Buffalo," Steffan said of the 167-year-old business.

Exterior of the historic M. Steffan's Sons at 761 Main St. in downtown Buffalo. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

On a recent day, Marlene Smith Amaker came in to buy a jar of cream to help keep a coat's color. She also picked up a pair of shoes that had been shined, waterproofed and had the sole re-glued.

"I feel like I step back in time when I walk in," Amaker said.

"I had another coat she could have charged me an awful lot of money to do something with," she said. "But she said all you need to need to do is this to complete the job, and it cost me $4, which I think has cost me probably $75 in the past.

"So besides being a nice lady she's an honest broker, too," Amaker said.

Some leather laces for sale at M. Steffan's Sons on Main Street in Buffalo. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Steffan has provided supplies for shows at Shea's Performing Arts Center.

"I had a lady come in from 'Wicked,' and she bought green leather for the monkey wings," she said. "A guy from 'The Lion King' bought leather work."

Shoe supplies – including desalters, waterproofing products, polishing creams and dyes – are in abundance.

"Your Meltonian is for fine shoes," Steffan said. "It's got some pigmentation so it puts some color back in it. But it's mainly for really fine shoes, like Italian-made shoes. Something you wouldn't want to wear in the rain.

"Your Kiwi is a softer polish, so it hides a lot of sins," she said. "Your Angelus has a lot more wax in it, so you have to work a little harder for your shine."

The store also sells shoe stretchers and shapers, and acrylic leather paint Steffan said kids purchase to decorate their sneakers.

Leather pieces from raw and finished hides are cut by Steffan in the rear of the store. In the front is a work bench with several tools, including a rawhide mallet, grommet setters and pliers for repairing purses, dying shoes and light shoe repair.

A large hydraulic Clicker machine in the back room is used to stamp items out of leather from metal dies. Stamping tools are also sold for leather crafting.

The store includes one thing that has nothing to do with leather: a line of salt at the foot of the stairway going to the basement.

Stefan said she had been told for years by people visiting the store that they could sense ghosts, especially in the basement.

Steffan said she hated to go into the basement but never saw anything paranormal.

But she uses the salt and a crucifix as defenses against any supernatural spirits.

Lori Ullman of Clarence came in on a recent day to dye the bottom of her suede leather jacket navy blue.

"It's a boring tan right now, and I need to bring some color into this winter, right?" Ullman said.

Someone recommended the store after she found it difficult to locate leather dyes.

"This is the kind of place I really like to come to," Ullman said, as Steffan located the bottle of liquid dye she needed. "It's unique, it's special and we are losing too many stores like this to the conglomerates."

But there will not be an eighth-generation Steffan to follow in Linda's footsteps.

"Nobody's interested in taking the business over. It's sad, but I understand," Steffan said. "Now it's technology, technology, technology. This is old school."

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