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Craftsman from Ukraine gets crafty to survive

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Leo Tabachnik was born in Ukraine in the summer of 1935. His father was a railroad engineer who was drafted into the Red Army when the Germans invaded in 1941. He was killed in the early days of the fighting.

It had to be harrowing to be Jewish as the Germans swept into Russia, but the family survived. After the war, Leo’s mother took him and his two sisters to her parents’ home in the Ukrainian city of Lviv. Her father was a furrier.

So that is what Leo became when he was 18.

Private businesses were illegal in the Soviet Union, but in the years after the war, with much of the economic infrastructure destroyed, the government looked the other way as entrepreneurs set up shops. Leo was one of about 10 furriers in his grandfather’s shop. They made coats and hats.

Leo got married in 1961. His wife, Regina, was a chemical engineer. They had two daughters.

When the Soviet Union relaxed its emigration laws for Jews in the 1970s, Leo and Regina decided to head to the U.S. They had friends who came to St. Louis. Leo wrote them a letter. He wanted to know what the weather was like. Much warmer than Ukraine, was the reply.

That concerned Leo. Furriers like cold weather.

Nevertheless, they came here in 1977.

A Jewish organization found them an apartment. Leo found a job quickly. Warm weather or not, St. Louis had a thriving fur business. Some of the fur shops dated to the last century. Most importantly, St. Louis still had a garment industry.

Even with a job, it was not easy. Leo spoke no English: “I didn’t know the difference between ‘yes’ and ‘no.'”

But he persevered, and within a few years, he had his own business. He started in the Central West End, and then he moved downtown. He worked with the department stores. The Tabachnik Fur Company is now located in a strip mall on North Lindbergh Boulevard in St. Ann.

I stopped by recently.

Sometimes when the newspaper seems like the buggy whip factory, it’s nice to visit somebody in another industry that is also challenged with changing times.

Actually, Tabachnik seems to be doing just fine. He’s 76, and he said he works six or seven days a week. “I enjoy this,” he said.

Exactly what does a furrier do? These days, mostly repairs and restyling. Maybe somebody has her grandmother’s fur coat and wants it repaired and updated. Or maybe somebody wants a woman’s coat transformed into a man’s coat.

He also works with leather. Repairs, alterations, whatever. He does a lot of work for motorcycle riders.

He has a couple of part-time employees and one full-timer. That would be Rita Cram. She has worked for Tabachnik for 27 years.

“That proves I am easy to work for,” he said.

This was once the fur capital of the world. Now furriers are a dwindling breed. I asked if there were any young ones.

“I don’t think so,” Tabachnik said.

I asked about the animal rights movement. The furrier shrugged. People still eat meat, he said. They wear leather shoes, he said.

Recently, a woman came in with a mink coat that her mother had owned. The coat was special to the woman, but neither of her two teenage daughters wanted to wear mink. Did Tabachnik have any ideas?

He made two mink teddy bears from the coat and monogrammed the grandmother’s initials on the feet.

So sure, there are people who do not want to wear fur, but Tabachnik thinks the problem is more basic.

“You go to a high school and you ask, ‘Who likes to be a tailor? Who likes to be a furrier? Who a shoemaker?’ Nobody wants to be a craftsman. These are the things that made this country the greatest. You could do these things,” he said. “You could go into business.”

Without young furriers, could he sell the business if he wanted to retire?

He shrugged, then laughed. “I have an agreement with God. He will take me straight from the shop.”

While we were talking, a man came in to pick up a suede coat that the furrier had repaired.

We went to the back of the shop. On a wall are several dozen labels from other fur shops in St. Louis. Most of them are long gone. There were several heavy-duty sewing machines. I mentioned that they looked old.

“I am an old man. I like old machines,” said the furrier.

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