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One Man's Art: Bags for Messengers


New York Times, August 4, 1985

A street hatch opens onto a steep well of crooked stairs. Below, large spools of colored canvas lean against old tables and sewing machines, while fluorescent lights vie for ceiling space with huge pipes. Scissors and awls lie about and pictures of schooners line the walls.

This is the underground shop of Frank Martini, the 76-year-old owner and sole employee of the Globe Canvas Company at 177 Mott Street. A sail maker by trade, he began making bicycle messenger bags 20 years ago. He has sold them wholesale to the more than 50 bike messenger services in New York ever since. No one else makes messenger bags, although some have tried.

"Everybody gets them from him," said Glen Janus, a spokesman for Streetwise, a messenger service that has used the bags throughout its 10 years of business. "He's a legend

While Mr. Martini labors below ground, .his work hugs the backs of speeding cyclists above who appreciate how the bag conforms to odd-size parcels, adjusts to unevenly weighted loads and endures heavy rains. Wearing his bag over his shoulder, Giovanni Headley, a veteran messenger, said. 'If you take good care of it, it will take good care of you."

Bag making, which began with a request from one of the first bicycle messenger services 20 years ago, has taken the place of sails and boat work as Mr. Martini's regular business. Though he has received orders from Airborne Air Freight, the people who past subway advertisements and Columbia Pictures, the bags are almost the exclusive domain of bicycle messengers.

"These kids need bags." Mr. Martini says. "Without a bag these kids can't go to work."

Many messenger companies either buy the bags in bulk or have their messengers buy them from Mr. Martini. Some companies will hire only messengers who have their own bags.

"If I sell them to stores, they'll charge them $30 or $40." Mr. Martini says. "That's highway robbery." Bags bought from him cost $20, a price that reflects the sympathy he frequently shows his young clientele. "Most of their work goes toward tuition money," he says. "I like that."

Bag making is a study in fluid and frenzied craftsmanship. Mr. Martini, slicing and sewing, can whip through several bags in about 20 minutes, stopping only to curse ancient sewing machines that cannot keep up with him.

The canvas is cut into sides. Then tossing rulers out of his way and shoving a large L-shaped table against one of several sewing machines. Mr. Martini attaches a Velcro strip, the first seal, and, as a second seal, two buckles with straps. In short order, he fastens inner pocket, flap and shoulder strap. Every stitch is reinforced, often as many as nine times.

"There isn't much handwork done anymore," he says, looking at the finished bags. "Everything's done by machines. I don't need them."

With all his success, Mr. Martini's bag making will always be a distant second in his heart to sail making, a skill he acquired as a young apprentice. New York's sail-making industry became increasingly mechanized after World War II. Mr. Martini tried to run his own company, but business was too slow and, after a few years, he was forced to move to his present location "down in the hole," where he misses his windows and the space to lay out sails.

Mr. Martini was born in 1909 in Jersey City, where he now lives. He grew up in an Italian neighborhood in Hoboken. "I lived right across from where Sinatra lived at Fourth and Monroe," he says, adding that they frequented the same pool hall, Turk's Palace, until the singer's career began.

"I used to pal around with a guy who worked over at the Brooklyn Navy Yard," he says. In 1940, Mr. Martini applied for work there.

He was thrown a ring, a rope and five pounds of canvas without being told what to do. "I'm no dummy," he says, recalling how he set to making holes and sewing in the rope to make the sail. "I did it for two days," he said, "and nobody paid attention to me.''

He got a job on the layout floor, where the "City Islanders clique," as he calls them, would sit on their drawings to keep him from learning design. One night he began examining the pipe work on his water bailer. Carefully he measured it, cut out matching triangular shapes on paper and glued them together. The model was exact. "That's when I figured out triangulation," he says, recalling his foolproof system of measurement crucial to sail making.

Mr. Martini has seen many canvas products and their industries come and go like the truck covers he used to make and rope spun sails of Egyptian cotton. Years ago, he made tents for the now defunct Palisades Amusement Park. He is still a member of the National Showmen's Association. Now, In addition to bags, he makes tents for the San Gennaro Festival in Little Italy and sukkahs for synagogues in the fall. But messenger bags, in demand years round, account for the brunt of his business.

Mr. Martini does not discuss the future of his bag business, His wife Margie, died seven years ago and though he has three grown children none want to continue the business. So, how much longer will he make his famous bags?

"I don't know, until I decide to quit I guess," he says. "If I stayed home and watched TV, I'd go nuts."


More information on messenger bag history from the IFBMA

 


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