These days, it seems like everyone with an Instagram and access to a craft store has branded themselves a “maker”. Which is a good thing; eschewing the hecho-en-Mexico mantra, our generation’s search for purpose, community and self-fulfillment has driven many to the literal drawing board. This motley crew of garage-tinkerers and hip DIY-ers connect digitally and value the art of collaboration, impeccable design and free exchange of ideas. Some of the best, like Bell & Oak, never lose sight of the past in their search for America’s greatest future goods.
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The story of Bell & Oak starts long before even the birth of its founder, Clint Wilkinson. In Denton, Texas, off the downtown square, Weldon’s Saddle Shop and Western Wear sits on the corner of Bell Avenue and E. Oak Street, the same place it’s been since Eisenhower was president. Wilkinson’s own shop still resides inside of his grandfather’s, and its name is taken from the intersection just outside its doors.
This is the environment Wilkinson grew up in and where he draws inspiration for his line of leather goods. Stepping inside the shop is like taking a step back in time: Wrangler bluejeans, cowboy boots, horse saddles, old custom spurs, Stetsons from the ‘60s, all dot the interior; there’s leather everywhere, and a stand-up harness machine that still works. Talking with Wilkinson, you’ll invariably hear about weekends spent learning the art of leatherwork from his grandfather and soaking in old cowboy stories. It’s hard for him not to talk about those days without a smile on his face, reveling in the leather-fueled indoctrination that began when he was just a child.
Wilkinson’s own shop still resides inside of his grandfather’s, and its name is taken from the intersection just outside its doors.
A veteran of the media world, Wilkinson worked successfully as a graphic artist, web designer and programmer before founding Bell & Oak. He did this work on his laptop from inside Weldon’s Saddle Shop. Answering emails, logging into Skype meetings, fielding nagging inquiries and notifications were all part of his daily life. His one escape, however, was leatherwork in the back of the shop. Whether it was tooling out a flower or cutting a pattern into leather scraps, Wilkinson found working with his hands to be therapeutic. In 2013, after a particularly stressful year, Wilkinson watched his grandfather slowly make his way into the shop with the assistance of a walker and realized that his grandfather’s legacy wouldn’t stand on its own forever. In this moment Bell & Oak was born.
Wilkinson’s fusion of new aesthetic and heritage embodies the city itself. Denton, TX, once a small farming and ranching community, has become a hotbed for creative types and an escape from the encroaching metropolitan sprawl of Dallas. This is what Wilkinson knows, and where he calls home. He makes his livelihood here by returning to the craft he loved as a child. The company’s part of a new American legacy now, born of an established one.