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KAI RYSSDAL: There are some phrases you try to stay away from during times of economic crisis. Sometimes you can stay away. And sometimes you can't.
WOMAN: We need to think about belt-tightening through all sectors of the economy.
MAN: Consumers tightening their belts.
MARKETPLACE REPORTERS: Tighten their belts. . . . Tightening their belts. . . . Belt-tightening. . . . Belt-tightening.
And sometimes you hear some of them on this program. But is the industry that inspired that expression feeling the pinch? Marketplace's Sean Cole went to find out.
SEAN COLE: Cellar Leather is a modest little shop in Hyannis, Massachusetts.
It's owned and run by Jeff Taylor, who was all alone behind the counter the day I visited.
JEFF TAYLOR: Well, what you see when you first come in the door there is just a small sampling of some of the hand-made belts -- some without buckles some with buckles. Um, on the other side on the wall there . . .
Most of these belts are his own handiwork -- 100 percent leather, no fillers. Some with elaborate designs. Taylor's been making belts for more than 30 years. But in an age of such rampant belt tightening, is the humble belt maker adjusting his ways?
COLE: Have you had to punch more holes in your belts?
TAYLOR: No. No, I haven't.
COLE: Have you had to make shorter belts?
TAYLOR: Just depends on the person. I have a lot of customers that come back that have lost weight and . . .
TAYLOR: Need a belt made shorter. If it's a lot of weight loss I can actually retool the belt from the other end of the belt so you're not looking at excessive amount of holes.
And what Taylor's dealing with on the retail side David Sack is experiencing wholesale.
DAVID SACK: We're making shorter belts, that's for sure. And shorter belts are cheaper.
Sack is president and founder of a high-end line of belts called "Streets Ahead."
SACK: We are also making skinnier belts.
It caters to the nation's chicest boutiques.
SACK: Most famous people wear our belts.
COLE: Really! Most famous people.
SACK: I mean from Angelie Jolie to Jennifer Aniston.
That is, most famous people who have been romantically linked with Brad Pitt.
SACK: That's just a coincidence.
But back to the issue at hand.
SACK: We punch an average of five holes in our belts.
SACK: But if that is required in the next month or two, we'll punch holes from the beginning of the tip to the end of the buckle so you could actually use it as a dog leash if you want. Whatever it takes to survive.
To survive in a nation of narrowing waistlines.
COLE: 'Scuse me guys, my name's Sean Cole. I'm with the public radio program Mar...
PASSERBY: All set today.
To measure the full circumference of the problem, I asked passersby on Boylston Street in Boston if they've been tightening their belts. Some understood the question instantly.
MAN 1: Yes I've worked very hard so I could tighten my belt. Take off a few extra pounds.
WOMAN 1: No, you just buy another belt.
COLE: You just buy another belt.
WOMAN 1: Yeah.
Strangely, some people thought I was talking about money.
WOMAN 3: It's important to not completely retract. Confidence in the
market has a lot to do with people's spending.
COLE: I think that's very wise and cogent. I am actually talking about your belt, your belt.
WOMAN 3: I think you need to expand your definition of belt tightening.
WOMAN 3: Yeah.
So I sought the counsel of Merrill Perlman, who writes the Language Corner column for the Columbia Journalism Review.
MERRILL PERLMAN: The first use that's related to the way we use it now is in 1887 by Rudyard Kipling, according to Oxford English Dictionary. "I was once starved and tightened my belt on the sharp belly pinch."
Which is to say, Kipling got skinny first and then tightened his belt.
PERLMAN: What's happened now is just the opposite. You tighten your
belt before the deprivation.
COLE: But how do you tighten your belt before you've lost weight
because you've starved? That's impossible.
PERLMAN: That's why it doesn't make a whole lot of sense. A lot of
these kinds of phrases don't make sense when you actually delve into them.
Still, the phrase "belt-tightening" persists. And understandably, belt makers like Jeff Taylor hear it differently than you and I do.
TAYLOR: Yeah, my mind just goes right to leather, right to making belts.
In Boston, I'm Sean Cole for Marketplace.