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Business Spotlight: Against the Grain

Ex-cop finds meaning through leatherwork

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It’s true that leather crafter Andrew VanZyll sports a beard, but it’s hard to find anything grim about him.

The name of his business, Grimbeard Leather, was the culmination of months of ruminating during evening walks with his wife.

When he hit on “Grimbeard,” he knew he had a winner.

His logo is the silhouette of a bearded face with the brim of a wizard’s hat pulled down over its eyes – just right, VanZyll thinks, for his target customer, a gamer who appreciates the unusual.

In a private studio in his home in Republic, VanZyll employs a wide array of leathers, threads and foil stamps.

“A year ago is when I decided I wanted to do something specifically for gamers,” he says. “I came up with all these ideas, 50 or 60 products I wanted to make. I narrowed it down to five core products, and it was the hardest thing I’d ever done in my life.”

He chose some obvious options, like wallets and purses, as well as items of interest to gamers, like dice trays and pouches.

VanZyll in July 2021 approached a favorite game store, Cards ’n Stripes Games LLC in Republic, and asked if they would be willing to sell some of his items on commission. He left a selection of products, and he was shocked when they sold out in a week and a half.

VanZyll started selling in other shops, and he had the same results.

“Between July and the end of November, I ended up getting into 31 different game stores,” he says.

Stephen Buck, owner of Cards ’n Stripes, says VanZyll responds to his customers’ desires and feedback as he works to discover what strikes a chord with them.

“Gamers like them because they’re items that can be stuffed in a backpack and brought out, snapped together and ready to use,” Buck says.

In all, Grimbeard Leather products are in 39 stores in Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma and Illinois. In Springfield, his products are in Meta Games Unlimited, Comic Force and Just for Him Gift Shop. VanZyll aims to be in 50 stores by the end of the year, though he does not have a specific revenue goal.

His products are available only in gaming stores at the moment, but in the future he plans to expand to online sales.

Too nice for his job
His professional life today – producing his own leather goods and working as head of sales at Springfield Leather Co. – is a far cry from his former life as a police officer. That work gave VanZyll very little joy.

“It was pure chaos,” he says. “I’d see people at their worst, hurting each other, stealing, car accidents – it was absolute mayhem and stress all the time.”

He says he talked to his chief, who offered some direct advice.

“He said, ‘Andrew, you are way too nice to be a police officer,’” he recalls. “A few years later, looking back on it, I think he was right. If I give people the benefit of the doubt too much, it’s not a good position for me to be in, and it doesn’t help the community.”

Prioritizing people
VanZyll likes leatherwork, but he says his purpose lies in people.

“When I’ve helped them create a leather product, it gives me great joy to see their smile,” he says.

Eventually, he says he’d like to teach leathercraft to gamers during workshops at gaming stores.

VanZyll outsources some of his production. A local artist, Andrea White of Transformation Gallery & Tattoo, does line drawings. Melissa Berri of Berri Patch Creations, one of VanZyll’s co-workers at Springfield Leather, does sewing.

“I found someone whose passion is to sew. It’s what she loves doing,” VanZyll says of Berri. “I know that the same care that I want in my products is going to be in that sewing process.”

Berri says what makes VanZyll different is that he cares about what he produces.

“He will not let his products go to customers if they are not up to his standards,” she says.

She adds that he loves creating products for his fellow gaming nerds.

“He wants everyone to be successful and will do what he can to help others out, even if it doesn’t help him,” she says, adding that her own business would not be where it was today without his support.

VanZyll says things changed for him when he realized he was in control of his how his life unfolded.

“It’s amazing to see what focus can do, when you take control of your life and take control of your circumstances,” he says. “When you don’t just believe it, but put it into action, the fruits of that are insane.”

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