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Hell-bound for leather

Dedicated local retailers take fetish garb to the flea market

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Published 2/11/2009

Tucked safely away in a corner of a bewilderingly tacky suburban retail landscape are two mad dreamers with a vision of making the world a better place, one pair of assless leather chaps at a time. Founded in August of 2005, Leatherocity is a full-service boutique offering everything from hot pants to harnesses to Boy Scout uniforms, fringed cowboy vests and amazingly sturdy utilitarian work wear, all in impeccable condition and priced to sell. While the diversity, affordability and scope of the collection are impressive, what really sets Leatherocity apart from your garden-variety corner fetish shop is that it's located inside the down-market confines of Waterford's Dixieland Flea Market.

A low-culture oasis stacked high with tawdry gewgaws to amuse, bedazzle and mystify, Dixieland is an unashamedly gaudy conglomeration of cheap goods and buried treasure, with immaculate midcentury antiques brushing up against shoddy disposable plastic crap with little discernible rhyme or reason. Where else are you going to find airbrushed portraits of Alan Jackson and Tupac hanging side by side? And where else in this vast metropolis are you going to find a rack of leather booty shorts next to stacks of vintage car mags, devotional candles next to naked-lady lighters and Darth Vader jelly glasses?

To Shane Roberts and co-owner Geno (no last name, please), the chaotic shopping spot has been a little slice of heaven, a fine place to develop a business and to explore a mutual passion for not just clothing, but the lifestyle it symbolizes.

Shane and Geno met five years ago at a "local watering hole" and quickly found that a shared background in retail and a commitment to "leather ideals" made for, as Roberts says, a perfect fit.

"Geno and I both are involved in Leather Institute for Education (LIFE Detroit), which is a leather foundation for education that's been in existence for at least six years now. I've been instrumental with that for about five of the six years, and we are both board members."

Indeed, Roberts has been actively involved with the Detroit leather scene for a long time, and has been, as he puts it, "a man of leather" dating back to 1979. Though a gentleman never discloses his age, he's physically fit and puts a premium on maintaining his appearance.

"I was Mr. Leather Michigan for 2003," he boasts.

Of course, that title's meaning's a bit murky, since the leather scene boasts a list of honors as confusing as boxing belts. Still, as a former titleholder, Shane was entitled to a majestic sash — equal parts Miss America and Mayor McCheese — an item he has worn with tremendous pride.

What's more, this rusty industrial stretch of unkempt sprawl is a mighty long way from the inner-city bar scene, or from cozy Ferndale, the fulcrum of the area's otherwise scattered gay community. So how exactly did these guys end up here in this strange, vast garage sale of the damned?

Roberts says, "When it started, it started with one weekend. And before you know it, here we are. And we use a lot of retail space and the rent here is simply cheaper than a traditional brick-and-mortar store. We've got a good customer base. You become a destination ... people go out of their way to find you."

Part of that brand loyalty owes to the affability of these two gents, but the attractive prices don't hurt. Shane can't help but assert, "Our most expensive leather jacket is about $150. Our denim jeans are five dollars every day — you simply can't beat that."

Sure, Leatherocity keeps its costs down through the low overhead, but its success has much to do with the duo's sweat. See, the pair devotes weekends to running the store and precious off-hours hunting down unusual merchandise. The pair's winning motto is "not-so-sloppy seconds."

Dixieland Flea Market is a family operation, even if the layer of lived-in grime and general disrepair gives the joint a somewhat (wonderfully) seedy feel. You'll find tiny pockets of straight-up smut, such as the porn mag booth run by a gruff old coot whose tobacco pipe's permanently affixed to his lower lip, and a curtained-off "Couples" shop sporting a wide array of sex toys.

Still, there's a shocking culture clash between the hokey environs and Leatherocity's playfully kinky wares — a clash only aided by the sickeningly sweet whiffs of cinnamon candy almonds rising from a nearby vendor.

Imagine "alternative lifestyles" hiding in plain sight; indeed, a Cub Scout hat sporting a "bear" logo takes on an entirely different meaning here, a silly subtext likely lost on the throng of bargain-conscious shoppers nosing for cheap trinkets.

But, really, who's in the market for Scout uniforms?

Geno's answer's coy and clever. "Kids. Moms trying to save a buck. Some adults buy them because they enjoy it."

Is it hard to strike a balance between a family business and a hardcore leather establishment?

"We try to keep it as demure as possible on the outward appearance because we don't want to offend people. But this," Roberts says, pointing out a fetching purple leather bustier, "gets so many fingerprints from people passing by."

Shane thinks it's all fair game, and though they keep the "extreme" stuff under wraps, any healthy expression of sexuality can't be a bad thing.

"It's fun, comfortable and functional, we have harnesses, leather shirts, leather ties, there's a whole military look that can be accomplished," Shane says. "I've had professional dominatrices come in looking for specialty stuff. Are you looking for homemade? We've got a few pieces for puppy play and pony play, but, sadly, I don't have a saddle anymore."

In decades past, such provocative garb might've provoked fits of outrage, but nowadays the weathered geezers smoking cigs in the ancient food court don't even notice. What once may have been perceived as a white trash wonderland has steadily diversified, with a racial mix as kaleidoscopic as the chintzy merchandise.

Part of said change involves a spike in the Latino population, recently blossoming in Pontiac and other parts of one-time lily-white northern Oakland County. The shifting demo has led Leatherocity to expand into ever more "cowboy" and Western wear, with the requisite fringed vests, Stetson hats and snakeskin boots.

While they aim to offer frolicsome and enticing outfits and gear, with an eye on fantasy exploration and adult dress-up, they're mindful of becoming a campy parody worthy of Halloween.

As Geno says, "We have people who come by and want the pirate gear — that's a big, big item right now — but we don't want to get so spread out that we lose our focus."

So how's business, overall, in this sour economy?

"Well," Geno says, "we've moved out of hobby territory, this is a business. We're paying our rent and we're able to operate without payment out of pocket."

Geno, though, has a full-time professional career, one that makes him camera-shy when discussing his flea-shop side gig, but, if anything, it's a sideline that's sucking up more of his time.

"This is definitely a passion project," he adds. "We both have 9 to 5 jobs. ... Our hearts are in this 100 percent."

To these guys, the heart is the essence of Leatherocity.

"Leather is in your spirit and in your soul," Shane says. "I have really come to appreciate the true sense of what leather means for me, wearing leather is like wearing a second skin. If you are comfortable with the skin you are born with then you can be comfortable wearing another skin."

Visit leatherocity.com for more information.

Corey Hall is a freelance writer. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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