Jo Manuel says Johobo bags got started because God helped her see something that no one else had: when she opened a plastic bag holding a tightly folded ottoman cover, it was upside down. Instead of seeing what it could cover, she saw what it could hold.
She then hired a seamstress from the Yellow Pages to add straps and a buckle to the already sound and sturdy ottoman cover and that’s how her business, Johobo bags was born.< p>“God sent me there to see it and I saw it,” she said.
The East Oakland resident was a featured seller at the Art and Soul Festival last month and will bring her unique bags to the upcoming Black-Eyed Pea Festival Sept. 20.
The bag is large and versatile, each bag made from one square yard of cloth. Except for two designs she intends to reproduce, the bags are one-of-a kind.
“I get material and make two – the inside and the outside, sew them together with elastic.”
A former bank accountant and home furnishings consultant, Manuel has sold at least 500 bags. At her tidy home studio, she has neat piles of fabric and an industrial level sewing machine. Since she started four years ago, she has had five seamstresses actually produce the bags from fabric she selects on quarterly trips to Los Angeles.
When her last seamstress quit in December 2013, Manuel had to let go of her perfectionism and settled down to sew the bags herself, relying on sewing lessons from seventh-grade home economics classes and explicit instructions from the seamstress.
Besides selling at festivals, car shows and for requests from boutique owners, Manuel holds parties to sell the bags, now often made to order. Women United for Change, a group founded by Manuel’s late mother, Argnell Coleman, and now shepherded by Manuel and her daughter, Joy Bowman, were among her original supporters who hosted several sale parties a year.
Manuel brings a yard each of fabric for the outer shell and the lining and guides clients to a combination that will work. “When I see something beautiful, I can just see it and feel it and know it would make a great bag. It was like breathing for me.”
The trick is to select cloth that is durable and that you can sew and is washable or can be dry-cleaned.
“People are so much happier when they pick out the combination themselves.”
The roomy bag, called hobo because it can hold so many things, ranges in price from $60 to $150 and is often purchased by men for the women in their lives. They recognize it as the ‘go to’ bag.
“This bag can do everything. So versatile it can go from day to evening. It can be a gym bag, an overnight bag, a signature bag for traveling.
“Women are the keepers of everything. They keep things for their husbands, children – you can even throw your purse inside it. ”
Manuel credits her daughter Bowman for inspiration. She supports her mother’s plans for the future of Johobo, which includes bags for the homeless.
“‘Mommy, they like nice things, too,’ she said.” The bag can hold fresh produce, other staples and hygiene products that the homeless need.
“Now that I am not working, I can really focus on that,” says Manuel who retired in July. “I always knew it was going to be a big business and now I am ready to do that.”