Jenn Rhoads might be the ideal person to run Esther’s Fabrics.
Well, other than Esther Fox herself, who opened the shop on Winslow Way 50 years ago, then owned it for more than 20 years.
But it’s her legacy that has kept the store open continuously since 1959.
“It’s still Esther’s store,” said Rhoads, who worked as a fashion designer before buying the Winslow institution nearly six years ago. “I’m just holding down the shop here. I never met her, but I’ve heard great stories about her. Her spirit is still here.”
Rhoads is not the only Esther wannabe over the years. Just ask Mary Terry, who bought the store in 1991 so it wouldn’t close and ended up running it for more than 13 years.
“The owners (Pat Marken and Joan Bickerton) had lost their lease and were going to have to close it,” said Terry, who is now co-owner of Dana’s Showhouse. “Esther was my first friend on the island and I couldn’t let that happen. I knew fabric and my husband retail, but it had always been the women’s community center on the island, so I just bought it on a fluke.”
Like Terry before her, Rhoads has embraced the business and the community she has called home now for 13 years, which is probably why Esther’s continues to thrive these days as one of only a few true fabric stores in business. Rhoads, in fact, thinks it’s the oldest independent fabric store in the state.
“The focus has really never changed since Esther opened it,” Rhoads said. “Stores like this are hard to find because chains have bought out most of them and then expanded the inventory so they’re no longer true fabric stores.”
Actually, Terry said, it started as a quilt store but then evolved into more of an all-purpose fabric store. Whatever stage it was in, Esther’s store was always a hangout for island women.
“She was a piece of work,” Terry said. “She couldn’t have weighed more than 75 pounds, 4-foot-11, but she was as feisty as the day is long. She was hilarious. We all loved her.”
Besides the aura of Esther, Rhoads believes the store has flourished because the island has a great customer base. Nobody is going to get rich selling cloth, buttons and ribbons, but it also tends to be somewhat recession-proof because people can become parsimonious during bad times and turn to sewing.
“We’re doing fine because people here like to sew and they are very creative,” she said. “We also get people from the Seattle area. Once they track us down, they keep coming back. But it’s the creative ones who are our core customers. This community amazes me, the way people feed into each other’s creativity.”
Terry said she went through a recession when she owned Esther’s, but people here seldom get extreme in their highs and lows.
And it’s not just about the stereotypical gray-haired grandmother who has been sewing most of her life.
“We’re getting more young people interested… a lot of them take classes here,” Rhoads said. “The theory is that sewing skips a generation and youth today seem drawn to it.”
There was no “skipping” in Rhoads’ case since she’s a fourth-generation “sewist,” as she likes to call a person like herself. She started sewing when she was 4 years old.
“I started making clothes for dolls and even my cat, much to her chagrin,” she said. “I was always sketching and sewing with my mom. I’ve alway been that way.”
Rhoads, who grew up in Eastern Washington, was a good student who eventually chose the Fashion Institute of Technology New York City over law school.
She spent a year learning more about fashion design in Florence, Italy, which led to jobs designing men’s clothing for Aeormax Industries and Eddie Bauer in Redmond.
She and her husband moved to Bainbridge after he was assigned to Bangor Naval Submarine Base in the mid-1990s. She commuted for several years before leaving the corporate life behind to find a more creative endeavor, working for about a year and a half at Esther’s before buying the shop from Terry.
Bainbridge and Esther’s help fulfill her creative proclivity, she said.
“It’s amazing what comes through the door here,” she said. “It helps that we are enthusiastic about their ideas. Esther encouraged customers to ‘pester Esther’ with questions and their projects. We’ve kept that going.”
Terry said it isn’t by accident that Rhoads became the latest owner.
“I always thought I just ran it… like it was my pleasure and my duty to maintain this center for women on Bainbridge,” Terry said. “It was my choice to work with women, but also to make sure everything went well so there would always be an Esther’s here. My attitude came directly from her, and I enjoyed every day there.”
Now it’s Rhoads’ turn.
Esther’s Fabrics has moved four times over 50 years, the latest to 181 Winslow Way.