As a small creative business closes, the owner mourns

Former art teacher Beth Janssen turned The Sewing Center into a "fabric utopia" where all sewists are welcome. In the final days of the store's going-out-of-business sale, it feels like a funeral.

As a small creative business closes, the owner mourns
A button-covered counter is one of the creative touches Beth Janssen added to The Sewing Center.

Recently, before heading to Las Vegas for a convention, I told a friend, “I’m really not a gambler.” My husband  piped up: “Yet, you bought The Sewing Center.” 

I bought the shop four years ago during the beginning days of the pandemic. As an adventurous, ADHD-afflicted art teacher who wondered how I was going to teach jewelry classes online, it didn’t seem like a gamble. Instead, I saw an opportunity to do something cool with art and community. 

A certified fabric nerd, I was already a Sewing Center regular. While browsing in the Indian Hills shop, I used to think to myself that if I ever owned a business, it would be one like this.

When I bought it, the roughly 40-year-old store was already a dying breed. Outlets such as Kansas City’s Kaplan’s and Cy Rudnick’s were long-gone remnants of an era when people sewed their own clothes. During my tenure, I purchased inventory from stores that were going out of business, most notably Needle Nook Fabrics on South Oliver Street, a 1960s-era shop known for their bra-making and jeans classes. 

I staffed the store with several former art students as well as my own fourth-grade teacher. Collectively we had at least 100 years of sewing and textile experience between us. One former student has a degree in textile art and design. My repair techs were just as skilled. I employed a former engineer for Afghanistan’s agriculture ministry. Another was a detail-oriented former jewelry student. 

I hired local artists to create beautiful windows and displays for the store. An employee made hand-crafted signs. It was my fabric utopia. I worked constantly to curate a collection of modern and traditional staples to serve all kinds of sewists. 

I tell the romantic history of my store so you can better understand the grief I feel over its demise. Unfortunately, brick and mortar shops of all kinds are going by the wayside due to the rise in online shopping. Even my biggest competitor, JoAnn, is in the process of reorganizing due to bankruptcy. 

Many people have told me that shopping at The Sewing Center reminded them of the old-fashioned stores of their childhood. I’ve heard similar things about Moler’s Camera, which is closing after 80 years. One of the reasons? “The profit margins are just pathetic,” Bob Moler told the Wichita Eagle. “You could buy cameras at any big box store for about the same price or … literally less than I have to pay to buy them from the manufacturer.”

While customers appreciate big-box and online stores for their bargains, locally owned stores set ourselves apart with knowledgeable customer service. Once we got a call from someone who had questions about two different sewing machines. I spent 20 minutes discussing the machines in detail. At the end of the call, the customer told me they were deciding between two machines that were on sale at JoAnn. 

I am currently hosting the funeral for my store. (Other people might call it a going-out-of-business sale.) The weird thing is that everyone considers it “their” funeral, too. When I tell my elderly customers that e-commerce might be their only option now, many say they don’t shop online. A younger customer suggested I put my products online, but the best part of my shop is that I can actually teach people about sewing. When a widower walks in and doesn’t know how to hem his jeans because his wife used to do it for him, I can help.

Beth Janssen is pictured at right, next The Sewing Center's original owner Bev Seyfert. Photo courtesy of The Sewing Center.

At this funeral, at least 50% of the attendees ask me why we’re closing. I cringe every time — I think it's a nosy question. Some are so persistent that I wonder if they expect me to produce my profit and loss statements for their inspection. Frankly, our rent has gone up, reflecting a wider trend in Wichita: From 2000-2020, rent for retail space was relatively stable, ranging from $8.64 per square foot in 2003 to $12.62 in 2018, with an average cost of $10.22 per square feet during that two-decade period, according to market data from Weigand. In 2021, the most recent year data is available, the average cost of retail space under 20,000 square feet rose to $14.71. 

And sales are down. I've spent four years working nonstop without pay, taking side jobs so I can keep the store open. It has been ridiculously difficult. 

But the last four years have been rewarding, too: Our customers have donated more than 40 machines to local Afghani refugees. We have hosted meetings for public-school sewing teachers and donated more than $1,000 to Quilts of Valor Foundation, an organization that makes quilts for veterans. We have given time and money to quilt guilds. We have taught Girl Scouts to sew patches onto their uniforms. We have donated quilts to the Riverside Elementary Parent-Teacher Organization. The list goes on and on. 

One of the coolest things I’ve ever done with students involved sewing. My students and residents of a nearby senior living community formed a sewing circle to work on a quilt for Seattle-based artist Marie Watt, whose social-justice-informed practice includes bringing different kinds of people together over a fabric project. When the quilt we worked on went on view at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, my smiling students were there. The older folks in the bunch came, too. Sewing is good for the spirit. It brings people together. It’s handed down, and it’s calming. You wouldn’t believe how calm 14-year-old boys can be when threading needles and sewing.

One of my favorite customer interactions typifies how we brought people together. A repair tech, a leather-vest-wearing cowboy who once lived off the grid with his own buffalo herd, was talking with a male art quilter, a pianist who wears beautiful vintage rings and buys loads of our best silk brocades. They were bonding over quilting.

In contrast, online stores promise pure consumerism without interaction or knowledge-sharing. As we reflect on our “loss,” all I can think about is how small creative businesses create community. Where else can you find such a wide variety of people? 

Locally owned, creative businesses in Wichita deserve your patronage. Show up and show them that their expertise and contribution to our community is worth it.

Their livelihoods depend on it.

Before she bought The Sewing Center, Beth Janssen worked as a public-school  art teacher. In a previous life, she was an assistant designer and fabric buyer for a handbag brand based in New York City, and she also clocked hundreds of hours in theatrical costume shops.

More from the SHOUT

A graffiti-covered music festival lands in downtown Wichita this weekend
With funding from Chase Koch, the first annual Elsewhere Fest & Conference seeks to transform St. Francis and Emporia Streets — and the local music economy.
How to sneak up on a painting
Kevin Kelly shares his approach making art that surprises him in this talk-turned-essay. His solo exhibition “If I Had It to Do Over Again” is on view at the Birger Sandzén Memorial Gallery in Lindsborg through July 21.
Bygone Friends University museum housed curious collections
Pieces of the Fellow-Reeve Museum, which once occupied the upper floors of the iconic Davis Administration Building, are still on view at the Derby Historical Museum. The exhibits reflect what early 20th-century Wichita residents found notable and worthy of preservation.
How a guy from Wichita resurrected ‘Dawn of the Dead’
From his home office in south Wichita, Leif Jonker organized nationwide 45th anniversary screenings of the genre-defining zombie film as a ‘public service to horror fans.’ It screens at the Orpheum Theatre on Friday.

Sign up for Where the Art Is, our free monthly email newsletter

Stay in the know about Wichita's arts and culture scene with our event calendar and news roundup.