Virginia Fabric Store Owner Seeking to Sell After Nearly 2 Decades | Virginia News

By JILLIAN LYNCH, Daily News-Record

HARRISONBURG, Va. (AP) – A fabric store might not sound like the most exciting place, but the energy at Ragtime Fabrics in Harrisonburg is palpable.

It is a paradise for sewers, quilters and upholsterers.

There are colorful skeins of shimmering pink lace, metallic threads for quilting and an entire wall of ribbons.

“When someone comes here for the first time and sews, I hear the same phrase over and over again,” said Laura “Belle” Stemper, owner of Ragtime Fabrics. “They are ‘in heaven’.”

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Stemper first opened Ragtime Fabrics in 2003 after acquiring an existing boutique in downtown Harrisonburg on West Market Street, just off Court Square.

With an inventory that puts the fabric section to shame in the big box stores, Ragtime Fabrics has been the downtown couture destination for nearly two decades. But change is coming.

Stemper plans to retire around the end of March to spend more time with his family. She wants to sell the business to someone who will make it work.

“I put my heart and soul into it,” Stemper said. “When I became a grandmother four years ago, things changed.”

The energy in the store is collaborative and encouraging, with customers discussing upcoming projects.

“Meeting the people I’ve met and seeing the projects I’ve seen is just phenomenal,” Stemper said of helping a costume designer with materials for an upcoming production of “The Wizard of Oz” at the Eastern Mennonite School.

Stemper said she doesn’t have to work to make the store’s energy so positive — it comes organically.

Enough to make anyone want to get a sewing needle, or dust off an old Singer sewing machine.

For those inspired, Ragtime Fabrics offers a variety of courses, including Learn to Sew, a six-hour course. Students learn how to make pajama pants using their own machine or one from the store.

“We talk a lot and sew a little. But when you leave here, you’ll have pajama pants,” said Lisa Arbogast, a vice principal who teaches the class.

The classroom space is also open to “Ragtimers,” patrons who pay annually to use the machines, large tables, and storage space for projects.

“I come in and use their huge tables to cut the surfaces,” said Jim Hanger, a renowned potter who lives locally.

Dressed in a Carhartt coat to which he added a Beatles crest, Hanger popped into the store on Wednesday to pick up a few things and just hang out.

“When I was doing pots, it was mostly earth tones,” Hanger said. “I have a great time with color.”

He leaves a coveted pile of shiny textiles from designer Kaffe Fassett in the classroom.

“It tastes the best in quilt fabric,” Arbogast said. “He just teases me with his Kaffe Fassett fabric.”

No one has yet expressed interest in taking over the company. Current employees want to continue working there, but have said they don’t want to take full responsibility for running the business.

When her children began to reach the end of their high school years, Stemper knew she wanted to start a new project on her own.

What she didn’t know was that the store she would open would cross town, doubling in size when it moved outside the city center, but still on West Market Street five years ago, in the mall which also houses Food Maxx.

For whoever buys it, Stemper says the boutique is a “turnkey” business.

There are many customers. In a 20-minute window on Wednesday, dozens of customers walked through the store. Some were regulars, others came from neighboring counties by word of mouth.

They didn’t seem to care about waiting in line to check out. The line, rather in a semicircle, curved around a large table, where Thelma Good, an employee, was busy cutting fabric for an order.

Stemper, who said she was a novice seamstress who stuck to household chores and children’s costumes, became a seasoned businesswoman.

Over the years, Stemper has traveled to trade shows across the country and visited wholesalers and sellers in New York, learning to find the best products and prices along the way.

Stemper said suppliers were making products to order and the COVID-19 pandemic may have catalyzed that trend, making cheap overstock products less available in recent years.

Stemper said she learned how to build relationships with good companies. If she doesn’t like the way a business is run, she won’t partner with it for products.

Stemper said the Baby Lock sewing machines that Ragtime exclusively offers are not only a good product, but the company has excellent customer service. If there’s a problem or question with a product, getting the answer is as easy as making a phone call.

She said she hopes someone who has free time to handle it all takes over. She wants to continue being part of the business, but says owning it is a big job, often occupying six days a week every week.

“If I could have my cake and eat it too…Ragtime would stay in business but I wouldn’t be running it,” Stemper said. “If someone came, I would always be available (as a consultant).”

If no one comes forward to buy the company, it’s possible Ragtime will close, but Stemper hopes that doesn’t happen.

“This place is a happy place for me. It’s a wonderful place to spend the day whether you’re working or not,” Stemper said.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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