Baer Fabrics closed in 2008, sadly. It will be missed!
One day in the spring of 1981, Dorothy Burns was scanning the endless shelves at Baer Fabrics in downtown Louisville, looking for the perfect materials to adorn the wedding of her youngest daughter.
At the same time, her husband, Henry, was elsewhere on a similar quest for the right brand of champagne. Unable to decide between the final two candidates, he, too, arrived at Baer’s 515 E. Market St. store with two champagne bottles clinking and two glasses tinkling in his hands, searching for his wife.
Abraham Baer was soon called to the sales floor to investigate the disturbance.
Clued in properly, Baer helped Henry find Dorothy. The three of them sat in the store, sipped the champagne and arrived at a consensus on the wedding wine.
Baer soon was invited to the wedding and helped celebrate the ceremony on a beautiful June afternoon.
This is one of a number of stories that surfaced when Baer asked its customers to send in their favorite “Baer Tales” during a recent store-sponsored contest.
It also personalizes the kind of customer-oriented service–and ability to “go with the flow”–that has allowed the third-generation family business to thrive while many others in Louisville faded into history.
Today, the company bills itself the world’s largest fabric and button store.
“I’ve never run across a larger one,” says its president, Stuart Goldberg, who took the reins when Baer, his father-in-law, died in 1984. He’s the only member of the original family still active in the business.
The company employs 125 people, just under 100 at the Louisville store and the rest at a second store in Evansville, Ind.–figures that have doubled in the past seven years.
Even the current recession only dented a rapid growth rate that has seen company revenues triple since that spring day in 1981, according to Goldberg.
He estimated revenue growth of 10 percent for 1991, compared with a 20 percent average during most of the 1980s.
“We know there’s a lot of business out there, it’s just knowing where it is and how to get it,” Goldberg added.
The company has done that and more–actually creating thousands of new customers for itself through a unique company educational program that teaches people how to sew for fun.
More than 4,000 people attend Baer’s sewing classes annually–including 100 or so teen-agers who attend “Camp Baer,” a series of week-long sewing seminars that also provide sales experience and instruction on how to seek employment.
By advertising in national sewing publications, the company also has developed a profitable mail-order business–with its own 800 telephone number–that accounts for 10 percent of Baer’s retail sales.
And Baer Fabrics stays in touch, publishing a quarterly newsletter that goes out to more than 26,000 customers.
At the same time, Baer continually looks for new opportunities in its Commercial Products, or wholesale, division. The firm recently signed an agreement with a Japanese maker of high-tech vinyl to distribute its product–used for popular back-lit business awnings–in 22 states in the eastern United States.
To Goldberg, the ability to change with the times is the key to the company’s success. And Baer Fabrics has shown a knack for doing that since 1905, when Nathan Baer, a Polish immigrant forced to leave his job in a clothing factory because of lung disease, began peddling materials from his home.
One of his first customers was an apprentice tailor named Sam Meyers.
In 1930, Nathan’s son, Abe, joined the firm. Baer began supplying Meyers and other tailors with dry cleaning supplies. That enterprise made up the bulk of Baer’s business through World War II and remains a staple of its Commercial Products division, which still accounts for half of Baer’s revenues.
After the war, dry cleaners sprang up, the number of tailors fell dramatically and fabric “pattern” companies emerged.
As a result, home sewing swept the country–and Baer switched its core business to retail fabrics and sewing supplies.
That also meant the company “changed from a men’s to a women’s store,” according to Goldberg. It also opened the Evansville store.
The company began to pride itself as a supplier of “hard-to-find” items–a niche it dominates even more today. That helped the family firm ride out the waves in a highly cyclical business.
The biggest boom for fabric stores hit during the 1960s and early ’70s. Goldberg calls it “the double-knit era.”
Double knit made sewing so easy it attracted thousands of new customers to stores such as Baer Fabrics. But when the material went out of style, Goldberg recalled, it left behind a whole generation that didn’t really know how to sew with more traditional fabrics.
The industry hit a down cycle.
Enter Goldberg, who joined the firm in 1976 with a master’s degree in business from the University of Michigan and experience as a partner in a heavy-truck dealership and truck-parts distributorship.
He said he considered the move carefully.
“I had such a wonderful relationship with my father-in-law, I didn’t want to ruin it by going into business with him,” Goldberg recalled with a smile.
By 1979, Goldberg and Baer had decided that education was the key to developing a new generation of retail customers.
Taking a cue from other large stores in the industry, Baer Fabrics began a series of sewing seminars, paying noted lecturers to come to Louisville on a regular basis.
When that proved costly, Baer turned to providing its own lessons–eventually building two large classrooms in its downtown Louisville store.
Goldberg believes Baer was the first sewing store in the country to take that step, although a handful of others in large cities have since followed suit.
The company also made a conscious decision to promote sewing entirely as a fun hobby–rather than a needed skill or essential element in home economics.
The strategy paid off. Baer’s latest round of growth began in about 1980 and continues today.
In the early ’80s, Goldberg realized that most of Baer’s customers were over 35. With that thought in mind, Camp Baer was founded.
Early response was lukewarm. Goldberg and other company managers worried that teen-agers didn’t want to sit in front of a sewing machine all day. “We were dead wrong,” he says now.
These days, each of the camps is full, with eight to 10 students paying $85 tuition for a week of instruction at the Market Street store from two teachers Baer recruits from area colleges and its own customer base.
Meanwhile, with the help of its mail order business, Baer has become a major national supplier of costumes to the theater and dance industries.
And the company continues to develop new commercial customers. It has added automotive and marine supplies to its home upholstery business.
Baer uses every inch of its 85,000-square-foot building and its buying power to build its reputation as the place to find items that can’t be found anywhere else.
Whole walls, for instance, are devoted to zippers or old-fashioned suspender clips that are no longer in production.
“You can’t sell from an empty wagon,” Goldberg likes to say.
Baer moved to its current site in 1972 when it was forced out of its store on the other end of Market Street by an urban-renewal project. The company strongly considered a move to the suburbs at the time–but the cost for a similar amount of space there would be “prohibitive,” according to Goldberg.
All that space comes in handy for Baer’s service businesses.
For instance, Baer stores boxes of hangers for its dry-cleaning customers, delivering them only when companies such as Highland Cleaners need them.