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Highlighting the stories of Milwaukee-area businesses that fix things.

Broken suitcase? This shop fixes luggage, helps people use items longer

A storefront named LUGGAGE TRAVEL
Lina Tran
The Traveling Bags Luggage and Repair storefront in New Berlin

Burt Robertson is a bag guy.

“I can walk through the mall and go, ‘Oh, that’s a Dooney and Bourke bag, and that’s this and that’s that,’” he said from his New Berlin shop, Traveling Bags Luggage and Repair.

Once, he was out at a restaurant with his wife. He noticed a Louis Vuitton bag at a neighboring table.

“It was slowly sliding off the chair, it was going to fall on the ground,” Robertson said. “I couldn’t just watch it happen. I got up and said, ‘Ma’am, your Louis is going to fall on the floor.’”

It may be his nature to care, but it’s also his business: The Robertsons sell luggage and travel goods and offer repairs. Holly, his wife, also runs a travel agency service from the shop.

“We jokingly say everything to help you travel better, except we don’t water plants or watch your pets,” Robertson said. “And if you have a cute pet, I might be convinced.”

The business has been open for about 30 years, passing through several locations. After a career as a firefighter paramedic for the city of Franklin, Robertson bought the business four years ago and moved it to its New Berlin location, at 2735 S. Calhoun Road.

I visited the shop on a Tuesday. The shop is filled with mountain-like displays of suitcases. It has that new car smell.

Suitcases are piled in displays inside a busy store
Lina Tran
The Robertsons offer repairs, in addition to selling luggage and travel goods. Holly Robertson runs a travel agency service from the shop.

Whether he's working as a paramedic or repairman, Robertson has always liked serving people. Technically, the place was closed, but Tuesday is regularly one of the busiest days of the week. The door chimed every time a customer walked in. The off day is good for catching up, but Robertson figures they might as well let people come in if they need help.

Services like those at Traveling Bags are hard to find these days, but they help consumers avoid waste by repairing damaged goods. They’re also often a win for customers, since repairs are usually a fraction of the cost of a new suitcase or purse.

“It’s just people trying to save money, they’re tired of throwing everything away,” Robertson said. “You look at something — a broken wheel on a bag — there’s really not a lot wrong with it. It seems foolish to have to throw it all out because of one little thing that’s broken.”

Often, there’s something else customers want to save too.

“Every bag has a story,” Robertson said. “People come in and [they’re] like, ‘This is the bag I’ve had my whole life’ or ‘This was my dad’s or my grandpa’s.’ For those people, cost is no object. They want it fixed. Because it means something to them.”

Robertson has helped all kinds of people: Olympic fencers, hockey players, flight attendants, bands, roadies for the Foo Fighters. And, of course, folks just going on summer vacation.

He’s even helped someone make a bag look old again. Once, a woman brought in an old leather briefcase of her husband’s, who’s an attorney. She wanted to refurbish it as a Christmas gift. At the shop, they refinished all the leather and it looked brand-new.

But that wasn’t what her husband wanted, and he was furious. The bag had been his father’s, who’d also been an attorney. He wanted it to look as it had before: well-loved.

“She actually brought it back, and we had to distress it to make it look old and used again,” Robertson said.

A man with glasses and gray hair stands behind a shop counter. He's looking at a red leather bag in his hands
Lina Tran
Burt Robertson, the owner of Traveling Bags Luggage and Repair, shows a recently completed repair job. The most common repairs are broken zippers, wheels, and handles.

That’s not to say that’s a typical job. More commonly, they see broken zippers, wheels, and handles. Much of the so-called “MacGyver work,” Robertson can do himself. But he also has a team of expert sewists who tackle more technical things like leatherwork.

Every repair job requires the right part. That’s the trickiest thing. In the luggage world, there’s no standard for, say, wheels like there are for cars. There are thousands of them, and they’re always changing.

In the back of the shop, Robertson has a closet bursting at the seams with parts. It is a luggage zombie graveyard.

“This little spinny wheel here, it looks pretty similar to this spinny wheel, but they’re not anywhere near the same thing,” he said.

If he can’t find the part in his inventory, he’ll go online and search for it, often having bits and pieces shipped in from overseas.

Some repairs can’t be done. For instance, there’s a lot of zipper repairs the shop will do, like a broken coil or a lost zipper pull. But it’s cost-prohibitive to install an entirely new zipper onto a suitcase, Robertson said.

At that point, maybe the bag is retired. At the end of a bag’s life, Robertson could salvage it for parts. Or, he might donate it for storage at women’s crisis centers or homeless shelters.

Then, there are the bags in really bad shape. Those go to police departments.

“They need them to train the dogs. Drug dogs, bomb dogs,” Roberston said. “The dogs are really smart, obviously. They can’t continually use a bag over and over. If he knows the fake drugs are in the green bag, he walks in — green bag! — that’s the one. So they have to change them up.”

Working or not, we find uses for bags. Robertson is there to make it all happen.

Lina is a WUWM news reporter.
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