Number Eight * May 15, 1996
Driving into Hendersonville on North Carolina state highway 25, you encounter a wild array of incongruities. As you roll up and down the southern Appalachian hills through Zirconia, you are assaulted by several variants of the familiar rural "junkyard in the frontyard" phenomenon, as old hulks of autos, twisted bicycles, rusty 55-gallon drums and a jillion other pieces of trash decorate the property in front of the inevitable battered trailers.
Moving on into Flat Rock, the human landscape modulates into well-manicured golf courses, finer homes, and understated tourist attractions like the last home of the poet Carl Sandburg (after he left the brawny shoulders of Chicago) where he wrote and his wife raised goats. This National Park Service site still has a burgeoning goat population, and the old white clapboard house high on a hill commands a view of the surrounding countryside. There is also a nice gift shop nearby, "The Wrinkled Egg."
I had always pictured Hendersonville as a quaint mountain town, but unfortunately it comes at you more like a strip mall. Gas stations and fast food emporia litter the roadside like so many old beer cans, intermingled with blocky commercial buildings like the one we saw off to our left which shouted in big letters, "Bonesteel's Hardware." The town does have some nice architectural gems near its center. One of them is a Tourist Information Center with an inviting front porch and rockers, so we pulled in there to seek directions.
"Can you tell us where Georgia Bonesteel's quilt store is?" I ask the man at the counter.
"Sure," he says, giving us instructions back the way we came, with a turn to the right at White Street.
"But that's the hardware store!" I exclaim.
"Yes," he says, with the air of a man who has answered this objection many times. "And it's also the quilt store."
Georgia Bonesteel's quilt store is, indeed, inside the hardware store, which is operated by her husband. The space is divided in a somewhat impromptu manner by wooden screens festooned with quilts and posters, with the quilt store taking up about one-fourth of the floorspace on the right-hand side. The entrance feels narrow due to another set of wooden screens on the right that partially obscure the operation of two industrial quilting machines. A woman was quilting a sheet of pillow shams, and when asked said it takes her about five hours to do a king-sized quilt on one of the machines.
As you move further back into the shop it widens a bit, and you notice the intrusions of the neighboring hardware store, with the quilt hoops and Q-snaps right next to the dustpans and sponges, and the fabric display somehow appropriately abutting the paint department with its bright chips of color.
The store has just about everything you might need as a quilter. There is a moderate-sized rack of books, and a lot of notions. The fabric selection, while not large, is interesting and somewhat idiosyncratic, featuring Georgia's own line, Ozark Calicoes, along with some others. Debby Mumms and Hoffmans don't seem to be much in evidence. The store is also a Bernina dealer, and all the major models are on display, complete with high retail pricetags. There is a loft above them with tables and chairs, where classes are held.
Georgia was not in the store when we visited -- she was in Lancaster -- but the staff was friendly and helpful and there were many of Georgia's quilts on display, including an interesting sunburst in which she used men's ties for the rays of sunlight.
In spite of its completeness and the presence of Georgia's quilts, there is something sort of utilitarian about the store, like, well, like a hardware store. There is little interesting product presentation or imaginative packaging, and the crowded layout means there is minimal room for special displays. Apparently Georgia expends most of her imagination on her books and her quilts.
Nevertheless the shop is worth a stop if you are in the area. You might even pick up some nuts and bolts.
If Georgia Bonesteel's shop is in a hardware store, Mary Jo's Cloth Store started in the back of a grocery store -- her father's -- in Dallas, N.C., in 1949. Mary Jo's is now located in the Gaston Mall in Gastonia, a couple of hours up the road from Hendersonville (visible from Interstate 85), and is legendary in the region for the massive floorspace (some 40,000 square feet) it devotes to the display and storage of fabric. Quilters and other fabric-seekers drive from as far away as Washington, D.C. and Atlanta on day-trips just to shop at Mary Jo's, and one woman flies in every few months from France.
Margaret Cloninger started the store by selling muslin and other cloth from a back room in her father's store, and over the years and through several calamities -- including a major fire in 1981 -- has built the business into the family-owned powerhouse it is today. Mary Jo's oldest son, Tom Cloninger, is the store's general manager. He says, "We were probably the first 'category-killer' ever." Category-killers are stores, like Home Depot, MediaPlay, PetSmart and others which attempt to supply everything to do with a commercial category under one roof. Selling fabric on the scale they do, Mary Jo's was ahead of its time.
The store doesn't cater only to quilters, of course. It carries upholstery, fabric for apparel, drapery material and a wide range of other products. But its selection of high quality cottons for quilters is truly awe-inspiring, with an estimated 15,000 bolts of fabric, from all the major manufacturers, on display.
Mary Jo's doesn't present a slick, polished facade. The signs over the racks of bolts are hand-drawn or stenciled, often with added notations written on the sides. Despite an appearance of chaos, the fabric is actually very well-organized, according to colors or to the "theme" of the novelty fabrics. Typical signs say "Down on the Farm/Sunflowers" or "Blue Heaven," and there are whole racks given over to cat and dog fabrics. Their holiday corner contains more Halloween and Christmas fabrics than anyplace I've ever seen. The increasing tendency of quilt shops to display fabric by manufacturer or designer is not something that is practiced at Mary Jo's.
The purchasing process is similarly well-organized. You are expected to pick up a blank sales ticket at the desk near the front door when you enter the store, and have it available for the floor help to tally your fabric on. The store is well-staffed (with 72 employees overall) and service, even on busy Saturdays, is brisk and efficient.
The most pleasant and incredible thing about Mary Jo's is probably the prices. Because they buy in quantity, the company offers top grade name fabrics at considerable discounts. Hoffmans, typically $8 a yard and up in quilt stores, start at $4.89 and run up to about $6.19 per yard. Mumms are priced around $4.79 per yard, and all other fabrics are similarly discounted.
Their ample display space also makes it possible for Mary Jo's to buy multiple bolts of the fabrics their buyers like -- up to 15 of each -- as contrasted to the typical quilt store's purchase of one or two. This makes them one of the best places around to find the fabric that is no longer available in the catalogue or that your quilt store ran out of. Though the store has no catalogue of its own, they do mail order and will try their best to match you up with what you need. Many people send them swatches for this purpose, from places as far away as South Africa and Australia.
Given the store's success, I asked Tom Cloninger why they had never franchised and expanded to other markets. "My mother had the opportunity early on to go to New York and work with designers, but this was what she wanted to do. Run a family store," he said. Though the store was started nearly 50 years ago now, Mary Jo still works the floor every day.
Gastonia is about 10 miles from Charlotte, near the North Carolina/South Carolina border. If you are in the area, it's not to be missed. It's even worth the several-hour drive from places like Atlanta. We know; we do it at least twice a year.
Mary Jo's Cloth Store: 1-800-MARY JOS or 704-861-9100
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Following is a list of the rest of the stories in this issue of TVQ. In order to read them, you must be a subscriber. Subscribing online here and following up with the small subscription fee will entitle you to eight issues of TVQ, including this one. You will receive TVQ every six weeks by e-mail, and will be issued a password to access it here on the World Wide Quilting Page.
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Goteborg quilter and writer Anita Fors tells all about Swedish quilting -- its origins, history, and the current state of the art in Scandanavia.
Patty McCormick's Pieces of An American Quilt. Learn what happens when you lock a group of quilters up on a movie set and tell them to do stunts.
Victoria Slind-Flor, eloquent contributor to the Quiltart list, talks about her quilting, intellectual property, and the "Frog Prince" quilt.
Two Tiling Programs: ColorDesign 1.2 for the Macintosh and PCPatch for the PC take a different approach to design from the mainstream programs.
VQuilt 2.0 released, AOL Quilting Forum gets new look, Crafter's Marketplace moves, QUILT ART promotes art quilting in Europe, more!
Like any news publication, TVQ is always hungry for information about new developments in the area we are trying to cover. If you have an idea for a story, or want to tell the world about something you are doing which relates to computers and quilting, we'd like to hear about it.
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If you have a comment about an article, a complaint or a correction, we're glad to hear that, too, and may publish some comments as letters to the editor. Again, these may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 1996 by Robert Holland. All rights reserved. This file may not be reproduced in any form except to be printed out for the personal use of its owner without the expressed, written consent of the copyright holder.
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