Two wheels and a thundering engine evoke something different for everyone.
Motorcycles are a form of art in their own right, from gritty dirt bikes to fully outfitted cruisers. Clevelanders participate in every aspect of the culture — including the craft behind it in ways both lofty and practical. In this short series, Fresh Water Cleveland visits three locals who bring bikes to life in the most unexpected ways. They each have a unique point of view when it comes to laying rubber on the road and keeping the shiny side up.
Chuck Perez has always been handy, creating everything from Indian jewelry to musical instruments.
“I enjoy working with my hands,” Perez says. “I can make you anything. I made my own set of drums, and then I made my brother a guitar. I can do anything with my hands.”
In the mid-1980s, he discovered a passion for making quality leatherwork. He first made a simple child’s vest out of leather and began making adult vests and jackets. The work grew into TRD Leather
, a storefront at 6321 Detroit Ave. in Gordon Square where he makes leather products and has a compact showroom.
Now he makes everything from bags, purses, grips, and clothing to seats — with or without fringe and inlays — customized to the customer’s specifications
. His handmade products are respected in the biker community across the country.
Further reading: Motorcycle dreams part one: roaring back to the '70s.
Chuck Perez of TRD Leather
Success notwithstanding, Perez speaks of his leather making with a casual confidence gleaned from years of experience.
“I started with $80 and now we’ve been in business for almost 30 years,” he says. “I still have one of my guys, his name is Juan, we started doing the leatherwork together and I haven’t laid him off once. We pretty much have work every day.”
Perez and his small group of employees, which include his three sons and daughter, make leather chaps, saddle bags, motorcycle tool bags, mud flaps, grips, and anything else leather lovers seek. He also works with deerskin, snakeskin, and other materials. He says his most unusual request may have been a long alligator coat for a gentleman with questionable professional endeavors. Perez was happy to oblige.
He says the store gets a lot of walk-in customers.
“I do pretty good here," says Perez. "It might not all be from Cleveland, but also people calling [to place orders from out of town]. We’re on eBay and at swap meets. A lot of people who see me there call me for products.” In addition to regular janes and joes, Perez has crafted goods for the members of Nine Inch Nails and Metallica. He's even made a vest for one of Donald Trump's sons.
"It's a lot of fun," says Perez.
Further reading: Motorcycle dreams part two: stranger wheels.
Traveling across the country, he attends motorcycle rallies and swap meets about twice a month, typically for two to three days at a time.
"They're some of the nicest people," says Perez of his biker clientele. "They've got money to spend and they love American made," he adds of the Harley-riding set.
Perez recently returned from the Laughlin River Run Rally
in Nevada and he's looking forward to the Blessing of the Bikes
later this month in Michigan as well as Ohio Bike Week
in Sandusky, where he'll be hawking goods June 1 – 3.
"That's a good show," says Perez. "Every show I do is an experience."
The granddaddy annual event of course is Sturgis
, which draws hundreds of thousands of attendees from across the globe. When asked how much he makes at the annual South Dakota rally, Perez demurs and eventually says, "I make a lot of money."
He says quality products that are all handmade in America is what sets him apart from the competition. Of the 20-plus vendors he uses, several are located stateside, including E. C. Leather out of Tulsa, Newman Leather in Cincinnati and Weaver Leather Supply
of Mt. Hope, Ohio.
“I do shows all over the United States and I haven’t yet seen anybody else that does the same thing that I do,” says Perez. “Most of the [competitors’] products come from China or Pakistan. The customers that do care buy from me.
"When you go to Daytona
," he adds, "I guarantee you: you will not find a leather company that makes their own stuff. When I do Sturgis, I’m the second oldest vendor around, and I have not seen another company like me.”
Perez says foreign countries have put most of the American leather companies out of business by undercutting costs drastically. He's not slowing down anytime soon, though.
“I’ll probably die before I retire," says the craftsman, who will turn 72 this month. "I still work 10 hours a day sometimes seven days a week, and I just keep going.”
Perez came to the United States as a young child with his family. His father was Mexican and his mother was a full-blooded American Indian who originally hailed from New Mexico. Hence the secret of the shop's name seems obvious when revealed.
What exactly does TRD stand for?
"The real deal," says Perez.
Erin O'Brien contributed to this article.