American Quilt Retailer is pleased to feature Sew Simple of Lynchburg in today’s Open for Business blog post.
Shop: Sew Simple of Lynchburg LLC
Address: 2414 Wards Rd. Lynchburg VA 24502
Phone: (434) 239-6708
Owners: Amy K Johnson and Eric Johnson
Services: Janome sewing machine sales and service, classes, plus fabric and supplies.
Years in business: 2.5 years as a brick and mortar store, 1.5 years as an online shop before that to support my online classes with rulers, ruler feet, and tools
Number of employees: One part time
Store location: Sew Simple of Lynchburg is located in Lynchburg, Virginia. It is in a stand-alone building in a smaller city, in the Mid-Atlantic region.
What is the history of your store?
I began as a quilting blogger around 2010, sharing my adventures in free motion quilting and especially with ruler work. Sharing became teaching, often using YouTube, which led to two classes with a popular online platform. I set up an online store to support the classes with rulers and ruler feet. I wanted to grow the small business into something to support our family as my husband’s career became derailed by a bout with cancer. We bought the business of an elderly sewing machine dealer and repairman. We added fabric, threads, classes and moved into our current location just a year later. My husband took to repairing and servicing machines like a duck to water and machine education continues to be the core of our business. We joke that he knows the guts and I know the glory.
What are the store successes you’re most proud of?
I am proud that we bootstrapped the entire thing from my blogging and teaching income. We earned a reduction in the price of the business by running it while the original owner was ill for six months before we bought it. We’ve also been profitable from day one as this business supports our family of five. I am very proud of my husband and how well he has taken to his new career, as well as how well my kids have adapted to being shop kids. I am also very pleased that we’ve taken the business from a place that people only visited when their machine was needing work or replaced, to a place where people come to shop for fun, inspiration, and to equip their creativity.
How has your store evolved since your first day?
That first day was a big one! We painted over the yellowing country blue and mauve wall paper and we began our transformation into something bright and happy! It took four months before I started adding fabric, and another year before I really felt comfortable calling us a quilt shop. That didn’t happen until we had been in our new location for at least six months. We still definitely lean towards being a machine shop with fabric, rather than a quilt shop with machines. While we mostly have quilting fabrics, we also have knits, gauze, and wovens so that we can teach all sorts of machine techniques. I think we will stay a machine shop with fabrics, backed with great service and classes, given our strengths and what is needed by the local sewing/quilting community. Our store thrives on being different. My online business continues to grow, with a focus on ruler work and the tools I love best. But we’ve added fabrics slowly, including kits for my online quilt-alongs.
What have you learned that you didn’t expect when you bought the sewing center?
We were blessed to have an already established customer base for our machines. The previous owner sold Janome machines for nearly 30 years and had a good reputation for service. I was his customer for several years and was able to learn from him for quite some time about the business before we bought it. He gave my husband a good foundation on working on vintage machines as well as Janomes. While my husband is a natural born “fix-it” kind of man, I do not think we would have done as well with machines if we did not have his guidance. Because of this foundation, my husband was able to make the most of the service trainings he has taken with Janome. We really make it a point to know the machines inside and out. Customers really appreciate our knowledge.
What has been the most surprising part of owning a store?
How blasted hard it is to make sure to work ON your business instead of getting stuck just working IN the business. I know I need to do the things I need to grow my business, but it’s far too easy to get caught up in the urgent needs, or to do more of what other shops are doing instead of what I need, or my shop needs, to be doing. The other surprise is how segmented my customer base is. I think part of that is a reflection of how new we are. In spite of all the education we offer with our machines, we still have plenty of people coming in with the machine they got 60 years ago. They all come to us for help and I want to help all our customers.
What do customers see when they pull up and walk into your store?
Our shop used to be an eye doctors office and still looks a bit drab. We’re also set in deep from the road with two larger businesses to either side. We keep a long string of pennants/bunting fluttering from the mailbox at the road, to a post near our huge sign. The bunting actually helps people notice the sign. I’m adding a 4×4′ barn quilt as well as a few smaller ones for more color. In warmer months, we have big pots of flowers in front of the shop. As long as it’s not raining, we have a chalkboard sign just outside the door with a quote or other news. Just past the entry, with its chalkboard notice of events and news, the view opens up to a center display of machines and fabrics. Over Christmas, a series of stacked round tables was draped with greenery and ribbon to mimic a Christmas tree. Currently we have the same tables and two new fabric lines are up front and center.
Where did you learn how to manage your business?
We took a series of classes with our small business development center when we first started. Mainly I’ve learned online or via books, videos, or even podcasts I’ve found online. American Quilt Retailer has been a big part of that learning as have Facebook groups with other retailers. Having said that, I still have a ton to learn, especially with the financial and organizational aspects.
How do you select and manage classes?
My classes in the shop are chosen for two segments of my customers; the techniques I’m known for (like my free motion quilting with rulers), and the classes that a shop like ours ought to teach. That means we do plenty of basic classes. Our Learn to Use a Sewing Machine class is one of our best attended classes, as well as machine embroidery and other machine technique classes. I almost always have kits that accompany each class. I also give free one on one classes for new owners of our machines. This is pretty time intense but I love making sure people know how to use their machines. Online, I stick to either free motion quilting, with or without rulers, or how to use a particular machine or machine function. That’s what I teach best and what people seem to want from me.
By far, quilting with rulers is my main class subject. I began doing it long before it became popular, using a foot meant for a mid arm machine in a frame, influenced by long arm quilters. Because I did it before rulers were marketed widely to sewing machine users, my style shows the influence that I got from long arm quilters, and uses a minimum of basic rulers. I recently came out with my own rulers which are made by my favorite long arm ruler maker. They are made for the smaller machines so that I can better teach my students regardless of the machine they have.
Where do you do the work of your business?
I am transitioning to an off-site office/studio, and classroom. Our shop is small and we’re getting crowded. Instead of getting bigger and moving, I had an Aha! moment and began thinking of what didn’t need to be in the shop. The answer was me — or rather my sewing space, video area, and my office. I need uninterrupted time to focus for best results.
Up until recently, I did all my video and sewing work after working a full day at the shop. Much of the focused admin work happened at night too. I was tired, mistakes were made, and my family missed me. We are now prepping the new location and I’m still working from the shop. The work load has increased but my enthusiasm and energy levels have increased as well, letting me know I am on the right track. You cannot have a thriving happy shop if you are burnt out. Especially if you are the main creative force in your shop.
Why did you choose this second location?
Affordability, efficiency, proximity, and connection. Closer to home in our little town where rent is much less expensive. It is in a charming little downtown area. The new space will eliminate 60 minutes of drive time and the tag-team parenting of kids in school. It is close to the popular institutions of small town life and we have more connections to the area. It has the room we need now, and potential for growth later. This will house my own creative sewing and quilting studio, as well as be set up to shoot videos at any time. The main business office will also be there, giving more room in the shop’s office for packing online orders and pricing of inventory, which has been done in the classroom in the past. The studio set-up will allow me to consistently make the content and designs that fueled my online business previously, and the new online classes will increase that revenue.
What tips can you offer shops who want to do their own videos?
You don’t need to be a high tech user and you do not have to be Hollywood material. A mediocre video is better than no video, and make sure you smile! My earlier videos never even showed my face, just my quilting hands. My students say I’m down-to-earth and very relate-able. For the actual work I use an iPhone, some extra lights, and I finally found a wireless microphone that works for me. I edit for YouTube but do most of my videos live on Facebook. Yes, I quilt live! What you see is what you get, even if we do an impromptu lesson on the use of a seam ripper!
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