STEVE HENDERSHOT: This is Cedar Cathedral, a podcast about artistry, craftsmanship and the creative life in the Great Lakes. I’m Steve Hendershot, along with Clare Hendershot, from The Diving Bell, our band in Chicago.
I have this favorite bag, a U.S. Army-issue duffel made out of faded brown canvas - I’ve been carrying it around forever. It looks cool, it’s durable, and it also tells a story. It was my uncle’s bag when he was stationed overseas in the early 1950s, and somehow that history has imbued the bag with a little extra authenticity, a sense of toughness and adventure. And when I throw my jeans and sandals inside before a trip to the lake, I feel just a little bit of borrowed awesomeness.
CLARE HENDERSHOT: A lot of products aspire to tell a story like that, maybe around the place of origin, or the craftsmanship, or the materials. If it works, it gives you something to feel while you use or wear that product.
SH: Sometimes it’s earned; other times it’s just marketing. Very occasionally there’s a perfect fit, where the product just feels like the physical embodiment of its story or its maker. That’s the case with Mercy Supply Company in Grand Rapids, which makes durable goods like packs and jackets. You see the stuff, you meet the designer and craftsman, Rusty Zylstra, and it all makes sense.
CH: Rusty’s style is a fusion of old-school, blue-collar craftsmanship—toughness, practicality and un-fussiness—mixed with an artist’s care for design and material, with an adventurer’s love of exploration. And all of it is forged from his experience.
SH: You want a story to match your rugged work vest? How about knowing that Rusty perfected his craft while living and working in an unheated shed during a Michigan winter. You want that courier bag to convey a sense of adventure? How about the year that Rusty spent driving around the country in a 1980s school bus, retrofitted to function as a rolling workshop. You’re wondering if that wallet is as punk-rock as you think it is? Well, there’s Rusty, building motorcycles from scratch, and playing drums in a band whose self-described genre is blackened-death metal. And it all comes through in the product.
RUSTY ZYLSTRA: The one thing that I always wanted our products to be is you could literally hang from the ceiling with one of our bags and it wouldn't rip. A lot of companies make stuff without that in mind you know what I mean like you're not going to hang from your bag from a mountain, but I think you should be able to.
CH: On this episode of Cedar Cathedral, the story of Rusty Zylstra, how he willed his way to a career as an artist and entrepreneur, and how the things he makes reflect his spirit of exploration and tenacity.
SH: Thanks for listening, and for supporting Cedar Cathedral, our show about Great Lakes creators. As always, we appreciate you spending this time with us, and for telling friends about the show. If you’re excited about a particular Great Lakes creator you’d like us to consider, please tell us. You can email us through our website, CedarCathedral.com or pick your favorite social medium.
CH: We’d talked last time about posting some highlights from our meetup in Grand Rapids at the end of this episode. Then we got to thinking about how our podcasting friends behind a great show called The Distance have made such good use of mini-episodes during the weeks between regular episodes, and so that’s what we’re going to do — release a mini-episode, or mipisode, next week in which our panelists from Long Road Distillers, the Sovengard and Downtown Market discuss the West Michigan culinary scene. So, watch for that. Now back to Rusty’s story.
THE FUTURE IS NOW
SH: Mercy Supply Company was born out of a moment of culture shock. Rusty traveled around the country after high school, hiking and camping in the Smoky Mountains and eventually making his way to Seattle. It was this idyllic experience for him, a perfect moment where everything felt right—even though he knew it couldn’t last forever. So after a few months, Rusty came home to Grand Rapids, and his dad helped him get a job at a paper factory, working third shift. Rusty took the job, did the job, but did not love the job.
RZ: You can’t really be too excited about that. Everyone’s like slamming like a six pack of monster energy drinks every night, going home and hating their family you know? Not necessarily where I wanted to be after I was just traveling the country, but I did it for a couple of months and then you just hit the breaking point of just like this is not life like physically there’s just not a bone in my body that wanted to be there so I couldn't do it.
SH: Rusty, though, is not a guy who just says screw it, walks off the floor and figures he’ll sort it all out later. He’s a very pragmatic nonconformist, a guy who thinks, ‘If I choose to radically reduce my income, well, then I also have to make corresponding reductions to my expenditures while simultaneously developing alternative streams of revenue.’ Just like an MBA, except that unlike an MBA, Rusty’s plan is to move into his friend’s shed, which is heated only with a wood stove. He starts buying leather-working tools at yard sales and off Craigslist. He starts making and selling small items like belts that he makes while working over the winter in the world’s chilliest workshop.
CH: Eventually Rusty acquires enough tools that he has to move, so he moves to a nearby carriage house, also heated with a wood stove, and this time completely uninsulated. It’s even colder.
SH: So then Rusty buys an old school bus that runs on biodiesel and turns it into his traveling workshop. Because this way, he can just outrun winter. By now he’s getting good at his craft, he knows that, and he also knows that this feels right, like he’s on the right path in life. Of course, not everyone feels that way.
RZ: Most people are like, "What are you doing?" People are like, "Alright, it's not working out yet, you should probably move on," which I mean my whole family just thought it was kind of silly and, like, “When are you going to actually start making some money. Thinking about your future?” I’m like, the future is now, because that's what I want to do. Honestly if I had to move back to the shed in the backyard I would.
CH: You might think Rusty’s resolve would start to fray amidst all the uncertainty. But instead, he thrives on it.
RZ: It’s kind of fun not knowing what’s around the corner like what am I going to have to do? What am I going to have to remove from my life so I can keep going? What am I going to have to add so I can keep going? Being kind of like gung-ho for what you want to do is fun you know I don’t know if I’m going to make my mortgage payment next month but I don’t care because I’ll figure it out.
SH: The bus eventually gets retired, in part because Rusty doesn’t love changing school bus tires. The rims on his particular model of school bus are called widow-makers, so there’s that, not to mention the fact that bus maintenance turns out to be an expensive and recurring fact of life.
CH: So Rusty heads back to Grand Rapids, and gets married to an artist named Kait. And around this time, after years of anonymous toil, Mercy Supply starts to get noticed. In 2013, the online marketplace Etsy makes Mercy Supply a featured shop. The bag-lovers’ site Carryology publishes an interview with Rusty. Business picks up, and Mercy Supply gets its own, dedicated workshop, part of an old La-Z-Boy factory on Grand Rapids’ southwest side. And Rusty’s dad’s commentary evolves from ‘You’re trying to make a living making bags?’ to ‘People are buying this stuff?’
RZ: "You sold a custom coat to a guy for $500? My god."
SH: And here’s a part of the story that Rusty is a little sensitive about. He has figured out how to live on almost nothing, for so long until finally he connects with this audience willing to pay a premium for his products. Mercy Supply’s goods are expensive, and they have to be expensive, given the hours and materials he puts in, and he wishes the math could work out a different way, but it can’t. So instead, he has to make the case for a $500 courier bag to family members who think that sort of purchase is frivolous.
CH: Here’s the thing, though. Rusty’s dad also runs his own business, repairing forklifts. And it turns out that $500 is not a crazy-high bill when it comes to forklift repair. So Rusty finds himself arguing to defend the value of his form of labor versus others.
RZ: It’s funny cause people do not like to pay for skilled labor like in the area of fashion or craftsmanship, but no one questions what the car mechanic gets. You pay the bill and sure it sucks, but you do it.
SH: We don’t generally spend a lot of time on Cedar Cathedral contemplating global economic forces, but think about this for a second. We grit our teeth and pay the mechanic because there’s no cheap alternative. You wouldn’t ship your car or your forklift overseas, get it repaired and then shipped back, nor can most of us just haul off and buy a new car every time the check-engine light comes on. But inexpensive overseas labor and cheap construction are very real competitive factors in fashion, and if you want to be uncompromising, like Rusty, your stuff is going to be expensive. He makes everything by hand, and sources premium leather and canvas and copper from American manufacturers. The challenge is convincing people that paying more for that quality is worthwhile. And it is a challenge.
RZ: It's just people give me and other brands like me who are smaller a hard time about our pricing, but that’s the way it is. You have to really work for it to even produce one single product. There’s probably like 1 percentile of the world who actually appreciates it, maybe it’s a little bit bigger than that, but those 1% get it, and that’s our livelihood.
TO TELL A STORY
SH: We started this episode by extolling Rusty’s authenticity, saying that his experiences—the wood-stove winters, the biodiesel bus—matched the thoughtful toughness of Mercy Supply’s products. By that measure, you might think that these days the link between Rusty and his goods is thinning. After all, he’s now a married homeowner running an established business. He knows that things are different.
RZ: You gotta be kind of a nut job to start doing this and like make zero dollars and never buy anything hardly ever for years just because you want to do something. But I do kind of miss just waking up and starting something and just being like this is all I have to focus on today and I don’t know where it’s going to to take me but it’s what I want to do.
SH: Rusty didn’t set out to do this for a couple of years until he grew up. He set out to do this, as a lifestyle. As a long-term endeavor. He expects his bags to last for a generation, and when something breaks, he expects to personally be around to honor Mercy Supply’s promise of lifetime repair. He is making a career of product design and hand-craftsmanship, still anchored by that blue-collar commitment to do the job—not because of the praise he earns, or to prove some critic wrong, but because he believes in the things he envisions and creates and because he wants them to exist and to be valued, and to get better with age, and to tell their story for decades and decades into the future.
CH: For more on Rusty Zylstra and Mercy Supply Company, visit CedarCathedral.com. We’ve got photos of Rusty and his products and his workshop both on the site and on our Cedar Cathedral Instagram.
SH: We conclude every episode with a song by a great indie band from the Great Lakes, and this week we cross the border, to London, Ontario, where the band Millennials just released their debut EP. The song is Pantomime, and lead singer Cory Wallis wrote it about the same sort of early career crisis that Rusty Zylstra faced a few years ago.
CORY WALLIS: I kind of hate the status quo - how a lot of people sort of give up on their bigger aspirations and just kind of settle. The chorus is a declaration to get out of the status quo of things and try to reconnect with your passion.
CH: Cedar Cathedral was produced this week by us, Steve and Clare Hendershot from The Diving Bell. Thanks to Rusty Zylstra for meeting with us — twice, actually — and thanks to Cory Wallis and Millennials. We’ll be back in a couple weeks with another tale of Great Lakes creativity.