Brigid Murphy’s handbag–big and structured, made of attractively worn black leather and sporting red handles–is not by Marc Jacobs, Chloe, or any other must-have designer, but everyone seems to think it is. “If I go in a fancy store, they think it’s Prada,” she says. In fact it’s Sears Roebuck, an old bowling bag that belonged to her now-deceased father-in-law. When she kept getting stopped by people demanding to know where she got it, a friend suggested last fall that she start refurbishing and selling them. A few months later Murphy’s basement was full of old bowling bags, which she got from thrift stores, eBay, and people who’d heard about her venture. Once Murphy started cleaning and relining them, Brigid’s Bags was born.

“I approached it like I do everything, where I get some idea and then I launch in,” says Murphy. “I think there’s probably something in there missing that says, ‘Oh, wait a minute, let’s think it through a little bit.’ I get an idea and I get excited about it, and I just like to move forward.”

Murphy’s ideas usually have to do with art, not commerce. Since the debut of Milly’s Orchid Show 19 years ago she’s become legendary as its host, the wisecracking wannabe country star Milly May Smithy. She teaches screenwriting at Columbia College and performance on her own, and this Saturday she’s being honored by Live Bait Theater for her contributions to solo performance. She’s also working on several new projects, including a play about her bout with non-Hodgkins lymphoma in the mid-90s and a Harry Nilsson tribute at the Old Town School of Folk Music in October.

Murphy’s bio is impressive, but it’s not exactly brimming with the kind of experience most entrepreneurs have. After her bags nearly sold out at the Hideout’s indie-designer sale last Christmas, she started looking into getting a rep for them–only to discover how much she still had to learn. “I was like, I don’t have anywhere to send them, I don’t have a Web site. It’s a funny thing to be suddenly in that world, figuring out how retail works, figuring out where’s the right market for this.” A representative in New York was enthusiastic but dauntingly business-minded: “She’s like, well, I’d need 300 just to begin, then I’d need 1,500. At that time I had, like, 15 bags.” For a while Murphy sold everything she made, but then sales slowed down, she says, “because I needed to get everything in place”: building up her stock and establishing her Web site.

Some people suggested reproducing her original bag. “That would be a more conventional, more lucrative way to go,” says Murphy. “‘Let’s just go someplace and reproduce these bags and patina them.'” But one reason she had the idea in the first place was that she wanted to recycle the old bags in people’s garages and basements. She also likes the one-of-a-kind nature of these vintage items. “By the time these bags get to me, the people who owned them may be gone,” she says, pointing out her father-in-law’s name tag and another on a white vinyl bag that shows it once belonged to an Irma in Cleveland. Murphy always leaves such personal touches intact. “I like that these actually hung out in bowling alleys and they’re being rediscovered,” she says. “I love knowing who gets them.”

The workroom in Murphy’s West Rogers Park bungalow is packed. A musty, leathery smell emanates from several dozen bags cluttering a couple tables and most of the floor, where there are also bolts of heavy fabric for the linings. Murphy uses a woodburning tool to make her tags, tiny circles of red suede that look like little bowling balls. Though no two bags are ever the same when Murphy’s done with them–“Even if I find bags that have similar exteriors, the linings or the handles will be different,” she says–there are common styles. One of her favorite types is the brown leather specimen with ornate, hand-tooled horses and cowboy boots. “I had one with an elk looking up with its mouth open and the name ‘Norma,’ like it was being yelled out,” she says.

Murphy also uses airline bags with insignia from long-forgotten carriers and half-moon-shaped bowling bags meant to hold the smaller duckpin or candlepin balls. Early on she hadn’t heard of duckpin bowling, which led to a couple of awkward conversations with bemused sellers. (“Are those your balls? What’s the size of your balls?”) Most sellers insist on giving her the bowling balls too, so she’s always trying to think of creative uses for them. A few have been put into service as doorstops. She likes the little ones, but her husband, actor Marc Grapey, says they can’t have any more in the basement. She’s now thinking she’ll take them to their house in Michigan: “We might line the path with these little balls.”

The amount of time required to refurbish each bag varies. “It depends on what condition they’re in, how much work I have to do on the outside,” Murphy says. “The zippers are the bane of my existence.” Though she picks out the fabric for the lining, she pays a seamstress to put them in so they look professional. The bags range from $124 to $425–a bargain compared to designer “it” bags that go for $900 and up.

Murphy’s decided to stick with direct sales for the time being, through fairs and eventually her Web site, A few bags are for sale at Hazel in Ravenswood, and Murphy will be at the Chicago Antique Market this Sunday. “Hopefully this will kind of take on a little bit of a life of its own, and it’ll just be one of the myriad things I do to try and make a living.” The problem, Murphy says, is that “I’m treating it like it’s an art project–I have to remind myself that it’s supposed to be making money.”

Chicago Antique Market

When: Sunday 8/27, 8 AM-4 PM

Where: Randolph between Ada and Ogden

Price: Admission $10, children under 12 free

Info: 312-951-9939

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Rob Warner.