Community Cornerstone

October 24, 2013
BY Hanni R. Werner
Family-owned business celebrates 45 years
Michael Bearman (left) and Jonathan Miller bring only the best materials to A Fabric Place. (David Stuck)

Michael Bearman (left) and Jonathan Miller bring only the best materials to A Fabric Place. (David Stuck)

In the heart of Mount Washington sits a colorful fabric store that reflects the legacy of three generations.

A Fabric Place has weathered natural disasters and changing economic times to bring quality fabrics and service to the area for nearly 45 years. The 6,000-square-foot location at 6324 Falls Road houses thousands of fabrics and attracts local designers, fashion students and international customers.

“We never know what a day is going to bring,” said manager Jonathan Miller. “No two days are the same.”

One day brought the Secret Service escorting Lynne Cheney,  Vice President Dick Cheney’s wife, who was seeking a dress for a special occasion. Another brought international visitors from places as far as Australia.

“A designer with a three-hour layover in Baltimore will come visit,” Miller said. “A Saudi Arabian princess visiting Johns Hopkins Hospital once called, and I brought the fabrics to her at her expanded hotel room at the Marriott Waterfront.”

The princess was taking the fabric back to her country to distribute as gifts.

“In a lot of places, fabric is a gift,” owner Michael Bearman, Miller’s uncle, explained.  “In older [and more ancient] cultures, cloth is desirable.”

Hollywood also loves its fabric. Couture featured at the Oscars or the Grammy Awards is often made from materials that have passed through A Fabric Place at some point. To that end, Bearman and Miller seek out the top mills in the world when purchasing their fabrics.

The roots of A Fabric Place grew from a hobby of Michael Bearman’s mother, Monya. In the late 1960s, Monya Bearman, an avid sewer, opened up the shop. From the start, she devoted all her energies to the business and to helping customers find the right fabrics.

“On my wedding day,” Miller recalled, “I wasn’t let off from work. I left at 12:30 p.m. for a 4 o’clock wedding. My grandmother closed up shop at 2 p.m.”

Perhaps it was this deep commitment that helped the Bearmans rebuild after Hurricane David destroyed their shop in 1979 and washed most of their fabrics into storm drains. The hurricane, coming on the heels of another storm that had flooded the shop, demolished the entire interior.

“The only thing left was the phone that stood 5 feet off the ground and the chandeliers,” recalled Miller, who was a young boy at the time.

The store was not insured, and it had to be rebuilt from scratch. Nonetheless, the Bearmans persevered.

Miller’s dedication to the shop began nearly 15 years ago when he took a summer job there on a break from college.

“I had gone to school in Florida to play basketball,” said Miller, who stands 6-feet-7. “On a summer stint at the shop, I fell in love with fashion and the business. I enjoy it when people get joy out of getting the best.”

Miller and Bearman have a mutual appreciation for each other’s contributions, with Miller describing their partnership as “the best of you and the best of me.”

Although family-owned businesses have been floundering in recent times due to the economic downturn and the opening of more big-box stores, A Fabric Shop has only solidified its client base. Miller has helped expand the business by cultivating clients seeking prom couture. At the same time, both partners focus on providing materials with competitive pricing.

“If a Jo-Ann Fabrics store is selling patterns cheaper than we are purchasing them, I’d rather select what I can sell and be competitive with that,” Miller explained.

While it was common for people to sew their own clothing back when Monya Bearman started the business, the store is now seeing a resurgence of custom-made clothing.

“People don’t just want Armani,” Miller explained. “They want theArmani look with their own take on it.”

Other times, clients can’t findcouture that fits properly. In the Orthodox community in particular, clients have to build clothes up to meet their modesty standards. Miller has come to understand this sector’s particular needs as well.

“It’s hard for these clients because they will often come in saying they just need some black material to add on to their skirt, but there are many shades of black,” Miller said. “Other times, they purchase two of the same dress [to build into one]. But here’s the thing: If you’re a size 6, don’t buy two of that size. Order [the second as] a size 25 or as large as you can find instead — it will be easier to add on to the first dress.”

For Bearman, one ideal embodies his philosophy: “customer service, customer service, customer service.”

The store’s commitment to customers means that a mid-afternoon call from the nearby Light Rail station will send Bearman over to pick up the client.

“It’s not safe to walk from there since there are no sidewalks, so we offer to pick up clients and drop them back off at the stop,” he said.

Honesty is also a central value.

“We treat people how we want to be treated. And I don’t mind talking someone out of something if I don’t think it will work,” Miller said. “We are not looking for the fast sale but for long-term customers.”

Serving Johnny Depp during the days of “21 Jump Street” and hosting national fashion conventions have all been highlights of the business, but watching customers come full circle in the fashion field might be the greatest source of pride for Miller.

“I’ve watched kids grow up, little kids who used to come with their parents to pick out fabrics, and now they are national champions who graduated from Drexel University and have been picked up by a major label,” he said. “Little kids who used to visit are now working for Abercrombie & Fitch.”

Miller added: “This is fun for us, and we’re lucky to do what we love every day. … This business has been a ride — a ride that I would take over and over.”

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