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Cashing in on painful butts

BY CAPTAIN D

IF IT WEREN'T for pains in the butt, life would be quite different for Peter Lazas and Betsy Meister. The proprietors of the Blacksheep Trading Company in Trenton, Maine, these folks have capitalized on the aching asses of motorcyclists to become the country's leading marketer of sheepskin motorycycle seat covers.

While others' pain has been their gain, they couldn't have done it without the Internet. Peter and Betsy were early initiates. Fifteen years ago, almost blindly, they put their sheepskin business online. In the beginning, Peter admits, they knew nothing at all about e-commerce.

No problem. The gods of cyberspace smiled upon them. Intuitively they made all the right moves. Peter took an active interest in the site, learning to make his own pages. He changed things often, keeping things fresh and vibrant. He developed a style and kept it consistent. He made the Site interactive, inviting participation from customers.

Google has saluted his efforts by granting him page-one status from the get-go.

Peter recognizes the importance of providing users as much information as possible. For example. he is getting ready to put cowskins online. Other Sites selling cowskins don't allow customers to see what patterning they would be receiving. Peter, on the other hand, plans to picture as much inventory as possible. People contemplating ordering will be able to see the actual skin they would be getting.

From the beginning, Peter and Betsy featured sheepskin products such as slippers, rugs, and auto seat covers. With Betsy's encouragement, Peter got into Website maintenance, assigning himself the task of creating a page for motorcycle seat covers. Once posted, it took off faster than all of the rest of the Site put together. Orders began pouring in. At that time, nobody else was offering motorcycle seat covers online. Peter had wandered into an otherwise unoccupied niche. He became a case study in how and when the Internet can be incredibly effective.

Today, sales have reached a couple of thousands units annually.

Some of their success can be attributed to understanding and appreciating their customers. Motorcyclists, Peter says, are very particular people. They keep their bikes immaculate. People traveling in cars might allow empty soda bottles on the floor of the back seat or dust to collect on dashboards. Not true of motorcyclists. To them bikes are sacred objects. Cosmetics are never ignored.

A seat cover that didn't fit properly would be utterly unacceptable. And word would get around. If Blacksheep Trading didn't consistently deliver top quality, its business would wither away.

Creating a proper motorcycle seat cover is trickier than one might suppose. Motorcycle seats come in a dizzying array so sizes and shapes. For the most part, every model of every make has a unique seat. It's different from auto seat covers where four or five stock designs will fit virtually every car. These can be mass-produced. By necessity, motorcycle seat covers are custom-made items.

To create a seat cover pattern, Peter may take a dozen or more measurements of the seat. Every angle must be considered to assure proper fit..

Once he is satisfied with a pattern, Peter ships it to his seamstress who does the actual sewing. Sheepskin sewing requires difficult-to-master technique on a special machine. Peter says he wishes he could establish production locally. But so far he hasn't been able to find a qualified seamstress, even though he has been willing to provide one good equipment set-up at home.

The Blacksheep Trading Company traces its roots back to 1971 when Betsy began selling sheepskin rugs from her family's small sheep farm in Connecticut.

In 1985, she and Peter became business partners. For several years, they had a thriving antiques business. As an aside, they sold sheepskin products at fairs throughout the Northeast. They moved to Maine in 1996 and opened a shop on the Bar Harbor Road in Trenton.

From single sheepskin rugs, they have expanded their product line to include large rugs as well as such items as sheepskin steering wheel covers, sheepskin seat belt strap covers, and sheepskin bicycle seat covers.

“Cushion your tush-ion,” they suggest.
They have received some unusual requests. One time they fashioned a sheepskin elephant girth strap cover for a Connecticut petting zoo. A request for a sheepskin jock strap went unmet, Betsy says.

They stock sheepskin hats, as well as raccoon tail and leather hats in various styles. Their sheepskin innersoles are guaranteed to keep your feet warm, dry, and comfortable.

They have a neat way of letting customers know they're part of the enterprise. When people buy a seat cover at the shop, Betsy takes their picture and, with their permission, puts it online. On their Site are many photos of happy Blacksheep Trading Company customers.

Peter and Betsy would like to get back into antiques here. Right now they don't have large enough building. There is one underway, an imposing structure on their property that has been several years in the making. Peter ran into physical problems with a bad knee and now a hip that has frustrated completion of the building.

As an aside, Peter and Betsy sell old, wooden lobster traps. There is a surprisingly healthy demand for them. Tourists heading home tie them to the tops of their cars. Perhaps these relics are destined to be rustic coffee tables. Whatever their fate, they seem to satisfy a curiosity many people have in lobstering lore.

Peter says that Trenton was founded in the late 1700s by a man named Thorndike, an early real estate speculator. Along with some other fairly dubious accomplishments, Thorndike is said to have invented the lobster trap. (Early settlers didn't need traps; they plucked lobsters off beaches when more highly favored fare was unavailable.)

Whatever the legitimacy of Thorndike's claim, it has given Peter, who is president of the Trenton Chamber of Commerce, the idea of starting a lobster trap museum. Right now, he points out, Trenton has no real roadside attractions although millions of motorists pass through on the way to Bar Harbor. A world-famous lobster trap museum might at least get them to slow down. It boggles the mind contemplating where all this might lead.