Fire devastates North Lawrence shoe repair business; owners look ahead to ‘new beginning’

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Bruce and Kris Barlow woke up in a panic early Monday morning, forced to face the reality that their beloved family business next door to their home was beyond saving. 

An electrical fire resulted in a total loss of the couple’s North Lawrence shoe repair shop, BKB Leather.

“We were in shock first thing in the morning, and we went through several emotions,” said Bruce, 68. “For about one minute, I kind of lost it and kind of gave up, and Kris re-centered me.”

Around 2 a.m. Monday, Sarah Wallace, who works at BKB Leather as Bruce’s “left hand” and lives in a camper on the property, first heard noises outside. Once Bruce and Kris woke up, they saw smoke everywhere.

Lawrence-Douglas County Fire Medical personnel quickly arrived, and Bruce and Kris expressed gratitude for the way they acted deliberately but remained calm.

Bruce said during a panicked moment, his left arm began numbing, and he thought he may be having a stroke. Fire-medical professionals were there to make sure he and everyone else was OK.

‘His whole life basically just burned up’

Bruce said his habit when closing up the shop each day is to unplug everything, but he didn’t know there was a cord slightly still plugged in that night before the fire. Firefighters searched around after putting out the flames, and the burn pattern established that the source was that electrical cord.

Firefighters had to bring their hoses through the roof of the shop, said Kris, 66.

Sewing machines, chairs, tools, shoes, materials, crafts and more were all destroyed in the fire. 

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times The back of the shop shows fire damage, including Bruce’s melted bicycle.

Not only did they lose business materials, but they also lost precious collections of letters and sentimental items compiled throughout their lives. Bruce is also a musician, and he lost all of his instruments.

Bruce owned a collection of urns holding the ashes of his late family members and friends. That was the toughest loss to come to terms with.

“His whole life basically just burned up the other night,” Kris said.

Bruce is self-taught in leatherwork and shoe repair, and he established BKB Leather in 1987. It was first based out of his home’s laundry room.

After moving to a few different locations, including a space near the banks of the Kaw River, Bruce in 2000 built the shop next to his home.

BKB Leather is truly family-centered. What they call the “Barlow Compound” includes four adjoining properties that have housed four generations of the Barlow family, so far.

Thankfully, the houses remained virtually untouched by Monday’s fire.

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times The Barlows refer to the spot where the house’s roof on the right meets the burnt shop’s roof on the left the “miracle spot.” Monday’s fire did not spread to the house or any surrounding houses.

The shop sits next to the house they own, which Bruce’s mother lived in before she died, at 815 Elm St.

It’s surrounded by eclectic trinkets and handmade adornments, many of which are shoe-themed. Bruce and Kris’ grandchildren enjoy collecting marbles that have been hidden all around the property.

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times The “Soletree,” located in front of the BKB Leather shop, is a tree with shoe soles packed onto it.

Bruce and Kris’ kids, grandkids, dogs, neighbors, friends, customers and fellow community members keep the Barlow Compound lively. Chickens and a goose roam the backyard.

As Bruce stood at his stove Wednesday morning cooking up pancakes and bacon for his grandkids, he said he felt sentimental.

‘It’s a new beginning’

The Eagle Scout in Bruce won’t let him give up. And his support system won’t, either.

He said as a Boy Scout and a Scout leader, he’s always felt like he can tackle anything he puts his mind to.

“If you have some principles that you can lead your life by, it is sort of easy when you get confused — you just sort of narrow in and say, ‘OK.’ And my wife keeps me pretty centered,” Bruce said.

Bruce, Kris and their team are already making plans to rebuild the shop. But there’s a long process ahead.

The first step will be cleanup. It’s not likely that much will be salvageable, but they oiled up the sewing machines to get ahead of a potential miracle. A few hand tools might have survived, Bruce said.

After cleanup, they’ll need to bulldoze through the burnt structure and then build a new one.

Margot Self, a family friend of the Barlow’s, has organized a GoFundMe page to seek community help for BKB Leather. The Barlows do have insurance, but they’re not yet sure how much of what’s lost will be covered.

The donations are meant to assist with the cleanup and rebuilding costs, but Bruce said he plans to use most of it to repay customers whose items were destroyed in the fire. He said he’s most concerned about the several lost projects he was working on for customers at the time. Customers will need to contact him about their projects since his bookwork is gone.

Bruce and Kris have no doubt that the Lawrence community has got their backs. They’ve received a flow of visitors since the fire — folks bringing them items for the shop or food for their family, as well as sharing words of comfort. 

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Multiple friends and neighbors stopped by the Barlows’ property Wednesday morning to check on them. Bruce Barlow is pictured at left.

In navigating their devastation, Bruce and Kris have taken an optimistic approach.

“We have to start all over again, which is all right,” Bruce said. “I mean, it’s a new beginning.”

Kris added, “I think that will come in waves a little bit — the realization of what’s gone — you know, over the next few days. But the outpouring of generosity is what is really touching.”

Visit the GoFundMe page to donate online. As of Wednesday afternoon, about $3,700 had been raised toward the $50,000 goal.

Stay updated with BKB Leather’s journey ahead via the store’s Facebook page and website,

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Maya Hodison (she/her), equity reporter, can be reached at mhodison (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

Molly Adams (she/her), photojournalist and news operations coordinator for The Lawrence Times, can be reached at molly (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Check out more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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