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THE FINAL STITCH

Gisela

A fabric store is retail rarity, and not merely because there are so few left. There’s a special kind of intimacy nurtured within its sound-muted confines.

It’s a place where women—and the customers are almost always women, often accompanied by their daughters—share a passion for craft, for making things tinged with personal significance. Amid the bolts of patterned textiles and filigrees of trim, a bond may develop between the proprietor and her customer, even if the store owner knows the customer only by face or by the project she’s working on. They trade tips and suggestions. Tastes are revealed, and values. They open up to one another, speaking of the highs and lows of life: the births, the marriages, the deaths. Secrets may be shared as well, ones that husbands will never know.

“People who come to a fabric store will tell you all kinds of secrets,” says Gisela Soliman, owner of Town Trimmings, and keeper of confidences. “There’s something about a store like this that invites this.”

At the end of July, the women of The Green who still sew will lose a half-century-old sanctuary of sorts when Gisela closes her door at 24 Monmouth Street for the last time.

Gisela bought the business 14 years ago, after her three children had grown; she “needed another child,” she says brightly. The previous owners had had it for almost 30 years, she says. And before them, the original owner had it for ten.

When any retail establishment lasts that long, the impulse is to refer to it as an “institution,” particularly when its days are clearly numbered. But to call Town Trimmings an institution is to miss the point by cliché. As the manual skills of untold generations have given way in recent decades to the imperatives of convenience and low-cost-production, and as individual lives have spun in wider and wider orbits that cross only fleetingly, Town Trimmings has served as a kind of anti-institution, a refuge for shared and deeply cherished enthusiasms.

“Nobody comes in here angry that they have to make a curtain or pillow,” says Gisela. Even on those mornings when she’s not feeling quite cheerful herself, Gisela says that without fail, she soon finds herself caught up in the optimism of her clientele. “My darkest days have always been lit up by customers,” she says.

So why close? For a potpourri of reasons, one of which is abundantly obvious. Other than the occasional student from the Fashion Institute of Technology, almost nobody makes her own clothing anymore, so the market for wearable fabric has all but vanished. That leaves Gisela with upholstery textiles, trim and notions (all the tools needed to make something, such as needles, thread and zippers). It’s hard for a customer who doesn’t need fabric to justify a special trip downtown for needle and thread.

Then there’s the disappearance of other traditions that even customers might not be aware of. Not many years ago, wholesalers would still show up regularly with carloads of material from which Gisela would pick and choose for her stock. “Now it’s all three or four suppliers, ‘Press 8 if you want this, press 9 if you want that,’” Gisela says, her words inflected by a German accent. “It’s all catalogs and faxes. You don’t feel the fabric, or talk to anybody who can tell you, ‘it really wrinkles a lot.’”

Also part of the decision was Gisela’s need for a change. For years, she’s had a sewing business on the side, making tablecloths, cushions and such for her customers. It’s grown so much that she’ll have plenty to keep herself busy at her Spring Street home, she says. And Gisela does “amazing work,” says customer Heather Woolslayer, in the shop with her two small daughters on a visit from Mays Landing earlier this week.

Banyan

Because she, too, is an optimist, Gisela will continue trying to keep the craft alive, at least at a basic level. She teaches Sewing 101 in an adult education program at Brookdale Community College—how to replace a button, hem a pair of pants, replace a zipper. (The class begins next Wednesday, and each of the four sessions runs from 6:30p to 9. For more information, check out the course catalog and scroll down to page 8.).

But at Town Trimmings, with its large “sale” signs in the window, it’s winding-down time. Gisela tried selling the business, but it turned out that more people wanted to own it than buy it. A lot of the inventory is being sold over eBay. The ribbons may go home with Gisela; she’s too fond of them to part with them. Patti Siciliano of Funk & Standard has bought a good deal of trim to decorate her own store, which tickles Gisela no end. “I love spending time with Gisela,” Patti told redbankgreen via e-mail yesterday. “Something about her way inspires me. She so clearly loves what she does. She’s one of those strong women I want to be just like.”

As the end of July nears, there will be the goodbyes, many of which may find no equivalent in words.

“That’s the part I shall miss the most,” Gisela says, watching Heather Woolslayer and her girls exit the shop, a bagful of fabric and notions in hand.

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