cutout of President Obama's signature, which Earl
Harley is making into a buckle for him as a gift.
YORK — Some people retire and go fishing.
people retire and play golf.
Harley retired and started making buckles.
Harley the buckle man!" he said as I entered his
shop at the back of the Malcolm Shabazz Harlem Market,
an open-air emporium where vendors sell colorful
fabrics, woven bags, beaded jewelry, drums and masks.
shop walls are covered with letters of thanks from
people who have received his buckles, which are not your
standard hold-the-leather-together metal devices he
disdains. These are specially designed for the rich, the
famous, the political leaders and the political causes,
and each one is handmade by Harley in his Harlem shop.
need a real buckle," he said ruefully, eyeing the
simple clasp on my belt. In other words, a Harley-made
of his recent creations sit beneath glass in the store.
One is engraved with "Eric Garner — I Can’t
Breathe," commemorating Garner and his last words,
which were gasped during an altercation with New York
police last summer and which ignited nationwide
protests. Another bears the name of South Carolina state
Sen. Clementa Pinckney, a victim of the mass shooting in
a Charleston church by a white racist. "Black Lives
Matter" is implanted in nickel silver on the black
acrylic background of another buckle.
are not for sale, said Harley, for whom buckle-making,
along with crafting cuff links and the occasional dog
tag — there is one for Bo, the Obama family dog — is
more a hobby than a business.
are one of a kind, for the family members if they want
them," Harley said.
people wear their hearts on their sleeves. Harley wears
his on his buckles.
is one he plans to send to President Obama, with the
words "World’s Greatest President" on it.
also has one for the person he is certain will be the
female president: Hillary Clinton. 2016," it reads,
in silver letters on a red background.
mind that the Democratic candidate’s trademark
pantsuits don’t lend themselves to belts with wide,
ornate buckles. "She’s gonna win," Harley
said. "Sooner or later, I’m going to send this
buckle to her at the White House."
he spoke, the whiff of incense and the sound of foreign
dialects, from vendors and tourists, filled the narrow
alleys of the market. A thunderstorm had left the wet
pavement steaming in the summer heat, and sellers sat
outside their small shops, fanning themselves among
tables laden with earrings, baskets full of bracelets,
and exotic-looking textiles.
store and workshop occupy a trailer-like structure that
measures about 20 feet long and 8 feet wide.
belts with Harley-made buckles, many adorned with
rhinestones, hang from the ceiling. Buckles pack the
glass display case that runs nearly the length of the
store, which is separated from the workshop by a partial
wall. The store’s pink walls display framed thank-you
are four from the Obamas, signed by Barack and Michelle.
A fifth one from the first couple was to wish Harley a
happy birthday last June 23.
is a hand-scrawled thank-you note from Supreme Court
Justice Clarence Thomas. There are letters from rapper
Ja Rule, John Oates of the pop duo Hall & Oates,
former Gov. David Paterson, Bill Clinton and Rep.
Charles B. Rangel, among others.
does not talk much about himself, but he offered some
grew up in Savannah, Ga., and retired as a postal worker
in Queens. He is 80 but tries to hide it, even whiting
out his age on the Obamas’ happy birthday letter. With
his fit frame and energetic demeanor, he looks far
younger than he is. He used to be an avid runner and
finished eight marathons in the 1980s.
became interested in buckles during forays into
Manhattan’s midtown diamond district, where he would
see the jewelry makers practicing their trade in the
thought, darn, let me buy some tools and start doing
something," Harley said. When he retired, he bought
a jeweler’s saw, a drill, some scrap metal and acrylic
paint, and he started making buckles.
first, Harley made buckles mainly for friends and sold
some, for a few dollars to more than $50 for the most
elaborate ones, which are larger than an adult’s hand,
decorated with rhinestones and carved into hearts,
butterflies or other shapes.
said his first celebrity buckle was for Ja Rule several
years ago. "His stylist came to me and said he
needed a buckle," said Harley, who crafted one for
the rapper to wear in a photo shoot. Harley has a
picture of a shirtless Ja Rule, wearing jeans held up
with a belt and the buckle emblazoned with his name
gleaming below the waistband of his underwear.
rarely deals with celebrities anymore. Instead, Harley
said, he prefers to practice his hobby and send out his
gifts, which are not universally embraced.
Mayor Bill de Blasio was elected, Harley made four
buckles: one for the mayor, one for his wife, Chirlane
McCray, and one each for their children, Dante and
Chiara. The package was returned unopened.
of his most famous recipients don’t return their
buckles, but they don’t acknowledge them either, as
far as Harley can tell. Like Gov. Andrew Cuomo, former
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and comedian Kevin Hart.
"Never heard from him, never heard from him, never
heard from him," Harley said, ticking off the
names. "I think these things must all go into a
is nobody Harley would refuse to make a buckle for,
though he laughed out loud when asked what he would do
if Donald Trump became president.
I’d make him a buckle, sure," Harley said.
"My thing is making buckles."