“Making my way!” is the message I got from Nathan O’Malley as I was a few blocks from Able Seedhouse + Brewery. It was a reassuring message. For the countless time, I’d reached out to a stranger to meet and have them tell me their story. Nathan was like any other; enthusiastic, selfless, and generous with his time.
We hadn’t met, and for the longest time, before messaging him, I thought it might not even happen. You see, Nathan works for Leather Works Minnesota. A success story that isn’t simply American but purely Minnesotan.
Before the text, I felt justified in my feeling of intimidation. If you looked up Leather Works Minnesota’s Instagram account it would show you they have over forty-three thousand followers. Nathan himself, over three thousand. I’d sent him an email requesting to know more. What was the chance he’d even seen it?
But the connection was made. Enthusiastic, selfless, generous with his time. It’s what Nathan was willing to offer. It’s what I was happy to accept.
I was the first to arrive. Walking into the familiar Able with a smile on my face. Apart from the phenomenal beer, the brewery has always felt like a big hug to me. Nathan suggested it and I quickly agreed to it. And the conversation that followed captured the moment into memory.
He walked in soon after me. I was already in the beer line and he joined me. Catching me off guard, he dove into conversation as if we were old pals. Somehow we got on the topic of his friends and their talents in photography and videography. As I held my notebook I asked, “There seems a strong pattern in your Instagram photos. What’s the secret?”
“Thank you,” he replied, understanding that I was complimenting that pattern. Just as he was about to answer he was politely interrupted by the beertender. Having made it to the front of the line, neither of us had really thought about what we wanted, already our easy dialogue quickly established. Nathan went for the single batch Greenspace, I opted for the BLK WLF. Upon hearing my order, he leaned over and told me he knows the guy it’s named after.
Beers in hand, he circled back to answer the original question. “Mine’s all just iPhone photography, but I know how to edit. I can make iPhone pictures look really good,” he said with a laugh.
Strolling over to the outdoor space, we took a seat at a table on a beautiful day in August.
I’d known that Nathan has been featured many times in other publications for his career as a leatherworker. I wanted to know much more than just about the quality products Leather Works Minnesota creates. To me, it was obvious. The products are well crafted, constructed to last and look great. What I was interested in, was where the enjoyment comes from. What is it that makes Nathan O’Malley do what he does?
To know, is learning where he came from. When he was younger he started out at Inver Hills Community College. After being there for a year, he went on a trip with an organization called Venture that found him climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, fundraising money for child restoration outreach. The fulfilling trip led him to attend North Central University, private Bible college in downtown Minneapolis. It was a move recommended by individuals he’d met on the mountain climb.
At North Central, he majored in Islamic Studies and found himself living in Turkey for part of the last year in his program. “I fell in love with the people and that worldview,” he says following a sip of his Greenspace. He now occasionally teaches local pastors a little bit more about the Islamic community.
“I basically consider myself a leatherworker and an educator on Islamic history and culture.”
Upon graduation from North Central, Nathan was at the pivotal point in life where most college graduates are. What he saw in himself wasn’t what he wanted to be and he started to realize that he wasn’t in the greatest crowd. He knew it was time for something new and started shaping himself into a new man through meaningful friendships.
It was around this time he met his close friend Eli. After hitting it off at a concert venue, they’ve been friends since. They now room together in St. Paul, listening to music, decorating their new digs and having relevant and consequential conversation. “What I have with him is approached as brotherhood as opposed to just friends who hang out from time to time.”
Sipping on our beers, I learn that his friendships have grown outside of Eli. Nowadays, there is a core group of friends that he is personally thankful for. And earlier this year, the bonds they forged with one another actually prompted the group to join him on a trip to Iceland. I’d seen the remarkable photos of his experience on Instagram, and it had me asking what it meant to him.
“Going to Iceland together was just unbelievable because you’re experiencing such intense emotions.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“People think Iceland is just a hipster place to go because it’s all over Instagram but it’s actually a life changing place. You can go to some countries that don’t feel that different from here but Iceland felt like another planet.”
“Where did the emotions factor in?”
“It felt so peaceful and quiet, and healing as well, for me. I bought my ticket last year, when I had just gone through a breakup that was horrible and I was looking forward to Iceland. So when I was there, it was totally like a healing and mending experience. Like being with my best friends and just moving on, and that’s totally what it was. When I came home, I thought, I actually moved on.”
“So how has that experience changed you?”
“I think it added to the change that was already happening. A big focus of mine the last couple years has been calming myself down and speaking slower and just being a calm person. I used to be a very high stress, anxious person, who’d have panic attacks every day and just freak out and I was like, ‘I don’t want to live my life like that.’ And it was partially through my friendship with Eli and through some other things where I learned to be a calm, slower person. Iceland is a slow culture, so it’s just like home in a weird way too. You just focus on your relationships and Icelandic people are all very close. It’s a country of only 300,000 people. They’re so small that if you go on a date, they actually have an app over there to make sure you’re not related to that person.”
We laughed a bit.
Sitting there, outside in the August heat, I felt his answer required one more from me.
“What is it that makes you happy?” I wondered.
“My source of happiness actually now comes from focusing on being present. I actually, as much as I like traveling and seeing the world, I actually rebel against the wanderlust and that there is something better out there attitude. ‘I’m like no, Minnesota is amazing.’ So I get stressed out when people say, ‘I just want to move.’ But I’m saying, ‘Minnesota is amazing.’ So I preach that a lot. Be focused on where you are and cultivating a richer life where you’re at. With your friendships and your job, do everything to the best of your ability and thrive in your local community and explore your state.”
Nathan tells me how he’s been living here most his life and only went up to the north shore for the first time just last year. He’ll make a day out of it. Pack a bag, get some coffee, hit the road around 7 or 8. In Duluth by 10 and a beer at Two Harbors. From there, more driving. Hike Shovel Point, stop at Palisade Head and a little further to Grand Marais. Have dinner and a beer at Voyageur and drive home.
Like one of his drives on Highway 61 up to Grand Marais, the common theme to Nathan is that he’s constantly moving forward, on a quest to improve himself.
Now, he does what makes him happy. What makes him calm and present. He understands good friends are hard to come by. That music soothes the soul. That we’re surrounded by beauty.
All we had were a couple of beers that day in August. But it was so much more than that.
It was pretty damn inspiring.
A few weeks following our chat. I sent Nathan a text. Told him I was going up north for the first time. Inspired by what he calls his favorite past time. And in the end, everything he told me about the place, most of which didn’t make this story, was exactly right. Having only lived in Minnesota for a little over a year, I just feel lucky that I didn’t wait any longer to see it.
To sum up what I learned from Nathan. To put it simply.
I suppose I learned that there are worthwhile things all around us. In people, in nature, in conversation, in experience. Right out our front door. All we have to do, is open it.