Landmark store is the fabric of her life

Mary Jo's daddy asked her if she wanted a big wedding or a piece of land to build a home.

The teenager chose the dirt.

That early business savvy helped her as she opened a fabric store behind her father's barbershop in 1951, on her 19th birthday. Today, Mary Jo's Cloth Store in Gastonia is one of the nation's largest independent fabric stores, a tour bus stop and a haven for stitchers, crafters and designers locally and well beyond.

Now the store has gone high-tech with a Web site that allows shoppers to browse and buy fabric online. The site, launched June 1, is attracting visitors from around the world, already goosing sales by double digits.

The store's online gambit marks the latest chapter in a 57-year story of entrepreneurship, of surviving mishap and shifts in consumer tastes, of a woman pursuing her passion. Still no computer for Margaret Cloninger, who has been known as Mary Jo since she was about 2 weeks old. But there's now one in the buying office, and she has used it with her assistant to view fabric.

“It's the way we live,” she says of the tech moves. “It's just the thing to do.”

The Web site is a longtime ambition of her son Thomas Cloninger, a vice president with the store. Sales have stagnated a little above $10 million for some years, he said. They could sell more, he said, if they had even more space than the already cavernous 32,000-square-foot store. But there's no room for expansion in the '70s-era Gaston Mall being demolished and reconfigured around Mary Jo's. The Web site provides a new sales floor.

“We have less than 15 percent of our product line on the site,” said Thomas Cloninger, whose responsibilities include the finances. “The more product we can get online, the more the sales are going to increase.”

The site is the evolution of a thriving mail-order business. People wrote or called for samples. Some mailed scraps, asked for more. The store first ventured online six years ago with a largely informational site. With the new site, customers can click to order.

“It wasn't simple,” said Mary Jo, who at 76 still works six days a week. “Now, it's simple.”

Nicknamed for her mother's favorite home economics teacher, she taught herself to sew as a child. She was about 5 when she started working behind the counter of her father's grocery in the Gaston County town of Dallas. She quit high school without graduating, finding out years later that she suffered a learning disability. She married, built a business stitching wedding dresses and bedcovers, hemming clothes and covering buttons. Selling fabric came naturally.

Her father, Paul Cloninger, signed the $500 note to finance the opening of her first store. She soon expanded into his grocery. He closed the barbershop, and her fabric space grew again. He built a new house. She rented the old one for a warehouse. Then she built a place of her own in Dallas. On Dec. 18, 1981, it burned.

Banks wouldn't lend her money to rebuild. Mills wouldn't ship on credit. She considered quitting.

“I love what I do,” she said. “I love who I work with, who I serve.”

Employees helped wash unburnt fabric, which froze in the winter weather. They sold from a parking lot. A fabric supplier relented. She found a place to rent. Only one commode, but “I was very glad to get it.”

She rebuilt the business and several years later moved to an anchor spot in the Gaston Mall. The store is a crowded kaleidoscope of shimmery evening gown material, cuddly baby flannels, endless quilting choices, holiday prints and lush upholstery goods. Walls hold thousands of buttons, miles of ribbon and other trim.

Mary Jo's weathered the rise and fall of chain fabric stores and big box competition. She laments the migration of textile manufacturing abroad, which meant the loss of some fabric types, fewer choices in others. She also survived sweeping change in demand.

In the store's early years, people often bought fabric to make clothes because they couldn't afford store-bought. Rising affluence, low-priced imports and women going to work meant less sewing.

Then quilting caught on, replacing lost demand, said Laurie Harsh, who owns The Fabric Shop Network, a retail trade group in Vancouver, Wash.

“Now there is a resurgence in sewing with the younger set,” she said.

Out-of-state tour buses are regulars at Mary Jo's. So are high-fashion designers, toting sketch books. And grandmothers bring the granddaughters they're teaching to sew.

“That's where my next generation is coming from,” Cloninger said.

Going worldwide

Thomas Cloninger, one of three children, recalls his mother towing him to work as a boy in a Red Flyer wagon.

Now 55, he's worked at the store since 1981. At lunchtime on a recent Wednesday, he counted 43 people on the store's Web site, from the Carolinas to Colorado.

That day, the store filled a Web order from a customer in Italy and worked on a shipment to Belgium. Since the June 1 Web launch, orders have come from Australia, Canada, England and Germany.

In less than three months, Web customers have bumped up mail-order sales by about 15 percent, he said. Mail order has previously accounted for 15 percent of total revenues. Within five years, he expects online will boost mail-order sales to match in-store revenues.

Cloninger enjoys tracking the flow of international visitors to the site. Last month, that included more than 100 from China, home to many of the mill jobs once held by local workers.

“Doesn't that blow your mind?” he asks.

The new site quickly added 4,000 names to an e-mail list that took several years to reach 14,000. In the next week or so, he expects to begin weekly e-mail blasts to that list of 18,000. He plans to include employee profiles. About half the store's 65 employees have been there 20 years or more. Full-timers' health insurance is fully paid by the company, he said.

“Employees are your most key asset in the world,” he said.

Besides his mother, he works with his wife, Betty, the buyer for decorative home fabrics, and sister Paula Houser, also a vice president, who buys the bridal and formal fabrics.

“Everybody has their ups and downs, whether it's family or not,” he said. “You may have disagreements, but you work through it and go forward. It takes all the spokes tied together for the wagon wheel to roll.

“Mary Jo is the hub.”