Esther’s changes hands again, well, sort of

Barbara Kirk is the happy new owner of Esther’s Fabrics at 181 Winslow Way - Dennis Anstine/Staff Photo
Barbara Kirk is the happy new owner of Esther’s Fabrics at 181 Winslow Way
— image credit: Dennis Anstine/Staff Photo

Esther’s Fabrics store is like a family heirloom, say, an antique quilt, that just keeps being passed on to the next generation.

Or as it is in Esther’s paradigm, changing ownership from one employee to another during the 51 years the Winslow Way institution has been in business.

Founder Esther Fox set the standard during her more than 20 years as the store’s owner, followed by a line of proprietors who had worked at the store, including Pat Marken, Joan Bickerton, Mary Terry and Jenn Rhoads.

And now, Barbara Kirk, who purchased the store recently when Rhoads, who owned the shop seven years, learned she would be leaving Bainbridge when her husband is transferred from Bangor Naval Submarine Base.

Kirk has been working at the store for less than a year, but that and her six years on the island were enough for her to jump at the opportunity to be the next in line.

“As I understand it, after Esther Fox, it’s always been an employee or former employee that became the next owner. I can see why,” she said.

The employees’ knowledge of the business is so important in the way it serves the community, she said, that continued success depends on the line of succession going through them.

“I wouldn’t be able to this without the staff I have here,” said Kirk, who is an accomplished apparel sewist but has never owned a business.

She said she will be drawing from the business expertise of her husband, Jim Kirk, who is a program manager for Cisco Systems, but the knowledge of her employees will be invaluable.

“There’s incredible expertise on the staff and I’ve spent a lot of time talking with them,” she said. “ I’ll be relying on people who have worked at the store a long, and that will help us going forward.”

She has hit the ground running. Renovations are under way, with the store’s office being moved toward the back and its old space up front being rearranged into a classroom and a gallery.

There will be more emphasis on quilting, she said.

“We want to serve quilters and get more fabric for their quilts,” she said. “The gallery is part of a natural outcome of what happens here and the quilters need a place to showcase their work. We hope to showcase quilting and fiberarts with the gallery.”

Mary Beth O’Halloran of White Lotus Quilting and Ann Borwick are two quilting artists who will be featured at the store, she said.

Kirk said another emphasis will be lending support to vendors, suppliers and themes of the Pacific Northwest.

“And we’ll promote quilters on the island,” she said. “Beach Garden Quilts, for example, will be the first fabric line debuting here this summer, so we plan to be involved with events like that.”

Other changes will involve adding more classes, including free demonstrations that will be a regular feature each Saturday.

“Nothing major,” she said, “we’re just hoping to draw more people in and have even more outreach with the community. We have a lot of experts on staff, and we want to continue with the tradition that is Esther’s.”

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