It was an ordinary day. If any day in the south can ever be described so nonchalantly.
And suddenly, I notice it. The golden light shining down on a gorgeous leather bag. The Hallelujah chorus plays in my mind. Not just any leather bag, but a soft and useful bag with a good side shape, a lovely long adjustable strap – good bones, you know?
It’s love at first sight.
I express my admiration for said bag out loud and the helpful Sunrift employee, Julie, shares, “Yeah, she’s beautiful – right? My friend designs these bags here locally.”
And of course I think two thoughts simultaneously. “This would make a great story” and “I need one of those bags”.
Information is exchanged, contacts are made, schedules align and John Walker invites me to visit his shop on a back road in Travelers Rest to see the process and talk bags and leather products and country living.
Pulling into the shaded driveway by the beautiful old farmhouse I think I’ve traveled back in time and I’m happy to see where this country lane leads me. Which is through a field, past a small silo and into the trio of old barns sitting together. I recognize it as a dairy barn immediately because I’ve got dairy farm roots myself. (I was raised on one in rural Virginia.) I note the roof rusted in parts and the round hay bales and the beloved and worn Land Cruiser parked under the edge of one barn. John greets me outside and confirms my suspicions. “This used to be a dairy farm run by Clemson University,” he says and I feel at home immediately.
We chat underneath the canopy of a tin roof and a wild boar’s skull and it seems perfectly natural to conduct an interview in this setting.
It’s an unassuming spot but I know magic is happening inside and I’m anxious to see it.
Warm and funny right from the start, John Walker is not your average country boy. And yet, you know there’s good old boy somewhere in those veins too.
He’s wearing flip flops and that’s really where this whole business got off on the right foot anyway. Before leather bags, there were flip flops.
Cook’s Flips is John’s baby and he’s been nurturing and growing his business for about five years.
The music fills the background and we chat pleasantly about his life and his work, about new ideas and sturdy sewing machines, about BBQ and growing up Southern.
Although the bags are the newest addition to his business, John confesses that he enjoys making them more than the flip flops. “I hate working with adhesives,” he confesses. But his flip flops are a favorite among many so he’ll certainly continue the job.
Waiting in the barn turned workshop is a beautiful display cart John just crafted for his bags at a new location in Brevard. “All of my bags are farm inspired,” he says, Southern drawl pleasantly evident. “When I design a bag, I like thinking about being out here on the farm and what I’d use the bag for and what it would look like. It’s ability to get dirty but not really look like it’s dirty, you know?” And I’m nodding and smiling because, yes, I do know. (And it’s everything I love in a bag too.) “You can beat these up and get them all kinds of dirty and nasty and they’ll still look really good.”
The designs are John’s original work and the build of the bag is to compliment the body. With an adjustable strap and a side shape that contours perfectly to the wearer, it’s likely to become your go to accessory.
John grew up in Travelers Rest with his family. After high school he was living in Oregon and working with a friend on a business venture with kite boarding. He suffered a traumatic brain injury and his life changed dramatically. “I came home. I had to start over. I was severely depressed and couldn’t drive and it was bad,” he shares, no touch of bitterness in his voice, just an open and straight forward conversation. “I picked up sewing during that time.” Self-taught, his efforts paid off. “It was really hard at the time, working your feet and your hands, really focused work that was difficult because I was screwed up pretty bad then. But turns out, I loved the work.” Flip flops were born of this experience and he quickly realized that he actually had a potential business on his hands. (Or feet, you know.) John says at that time he committed to making the flip flops and selling them at farmer’s markets and they were selling well. He began selling so many that he couldn’t keep up, so he ordered some materials from China to try to meet the demand.
“It was a disaster,” he laughs, pulling a sample of a product from China for me to see. “I hated it. I came from this process of being super involved with my product to this and I had no idea what the conditions were and who was making my product and what the environmental impact was and I just quit doing that.” This lead him to search for other options and he landed on a location in Mexico. John traveled to this location and stayed for a month, made a great connection and toured various shoe factories until he found a perfect spot in Mexico to develop partnerships. Now John designs the flip flops (and the bags) and sends his designs to Mexico where the shoes and bags are made.
Certain parts of some of his flip flops are made here in TR, right in his workshop, and sent to the plant to be assembled together. He’s got one series of flip flops with recycled feed bags as part of the straps. John sews and crafts the feed bag portion here and ships those down to be added to the final shoe.
“It’s a great product, this is free range pork for this part of the shoe,” John shows me the work. He hands me various sorts of leather and continues talking, always with the same level of passion and interest in everything we are saying, “I think it’s ridiculous that people don’t care where their stuff is made,” he says. “I get grief sometimes when I tell people my stuff is made in Mexico. They think that sounds terrible. But I’m like – you’re buying your stuff from China and you don’t even ask where it’s from and you don’t even care.” John has worked to develop relationships with the people he partners with in Mexico.
While we chat more about John’s life and his brain injury and his recovery and education and music, about country bands and failed restaurant endeavors, we wander around the shop and I snap photos of everything I find interesting, which is in every direction I turn. It’s a working shop, for certain, but the sofa and the fridge in the corner and the offer of a beer while we talk reminds me that it’s probably a lounging space too.
It’s both, and it’s business and it’s pleasure and I get the impression that that’s a bit of who John Walker is as well.
He calls his business Cook’s because of another passion – cooking. “Not to like brag or anything,” and there goes that Southern grin, “but I’m a really good cook and putting together these flops and designing them and assembling them feels similar to cooking to me. Plus – it’s a good looking word.”
After finding success with his flip flops, John turned to designing bags and wallets. He calls the bag series the Hurricane. “Kind of like – my life has been a hurricane, you have to deal with it,” he laughs. His slogan is “Life’s a hurricane, go prepared.”
(His catch phrase there is one I can get behind too. Life is a little stormy and being prepared sure helps. And so does a good looking bag.)
John offers wallets too – several different styles. Often the interior of his bags are lined with former sails, most frequently found in Charleston.
The bags have no plastics and are primarily leather bags. “The cows we use in Mexico are unique – they barely use any water. They’re free ranging in these high desserts in Mexico. It’s actually a great resource compared to synthetic materials,” John says.
Currently it’s a one-man show here in TR, with John designing and crafting and shipping to Mexico and then the products being completed and sent back to TR.
While we were chatting, Abby pulled up to the oasis and joined us. She had an appointment for a custom crafted pair of flip flops because with a shoe size of thirteen, it’s a challenge to find flip flops in her size.
Enter John and his magical skills. I spent the next thirty minutes or so watching the pair interact, enjoying the process and literally witnessing a pair of shoes come to life before my eyes.
Yes, most of the shoes you order from John will be finished in Mexico, but he still has the ability and skill to design from start to finish in his shop. Talk about a custom fit!
Abby chose her own strap color and we chatted and laughed as John cut and measured, altered and shaped the flip flops to Abby’s foot and specific ideas. It was a lot like magic, seeing the straps being sewn and enjoying the show.
You can buy your own pair of flip flops on the Cook’s Flips website and through Instagram. And when you do, John himself will be packing those flip flops up and shipping them out. The bags you can find at Sunrift locally and at P Squared in Greenville and at shops in Brevard and in Aiken and at Pawley’s Island – and online too, of course.
I’m not saying whether I left this interview with a bag of my own, but if I did, maybe it even has its own name now.
Yes, this is a story of John Walker and his amazing skill set and unique products. It’s also a love story. Between a bag and a girl.