Son of a Stitch

Photos provided

The sewing machine looked harmless enough until it almost shot him.

Mike Peisach, a veteran of the Korean War, fished a live .32-caliber bullet from under the needle plate of a machine during a routine repair. Peisach, who started repairing sewing machines when he was 15, has handed down death warrants on many machines, but this was the first one that fought back.

“She brought it in for repairs and wanted to know why it wouldn’t work. The wheel was jammed and I took the needle plates off and found it. If I’d turned the crank hard enough, the arm would’ve hit the bullet,” said Peisach.

When the woman returned for her machine Peisach asked her why she tried to shoot him.

Sheepishly, she blamed her son: “We were missing some shells.”

Peisach handed her the bullet, her working machine and suggested she watch her kids while she was sewing.

Peisach, 82, is one of the last remaining sewing machine repairmen in the Baltimore area. Working out of Weiner’s Vacs in Owings Mills, Peisach estimates he fixes 10 to 15 sewing machines a week. Most of his customers are older and dedicated to machines they’ve used for years. Peisach said that the new machines operate with a “planned obsolescence” of four to five years.

“When it stops working, they throw it away and buy a new one. It can take an hour to take apart a new machine just to move a screw,” said Peisach. With today’s cheaper sewing machines, the repairs can be costlier than the machine itself.

But for customers attached to an older machine that they’re not willing to trash, Peisach is ready with 62 sewing machines stacked up in a corner of his tidy basement for extra parts. Peisach explains that while looking different on the outside, about five manufacturers made the bulk of the sewing machines, so the insides are the same in many older machines.

Even if the machines are similar, they’re all special to Peisach.

“I have an illusion. My thought is I own all the sewing machines in the world and I let people use them,” he said with a smile. “When they abuse them, I get very angry at them.”

Peisach, wearing a dapper brown vest over a crisp button down shirt on a Sunday afternoon, proudly showed off a picture of his parents in a frame shaped like a Singer sewing machine. A statue of a character from “Fiddler on the Roof” bent over a sewing machine is perched nearby. “My favorite part,” said Peisach as his trim and energetic wife, Barbara, bustled through the house keeping Peisach on point.

Baltimore Bound

Peisach’s family moved from Brighton Beach in Brooklyn, N.Y., to Baltimore in 1939. They happened to move on Halloween, and Peisach, 8 at the time, was in awe.

“It was 95 percent Jewish in Brighton Beach,” he recalled. “They didn’t really celebrate Halloween, and it was a big deal in Baltimore. I thought ‘Where did they take us?’”

Peisach’s parents emigrated from the Crimea area in Russia. His father’s friend, Willy Harris, “mishpocheh” according to Peisach, arrived on the same boat and was like an uncle to him. Harris moved to Philadelphia and opened a sewing machine company. Peisach’s parents were in the fish business but looking for a change due to his mother’s rheumatism.

Harris suggested they move to Baltimore and start their own sewing machine company. He helped them get started, and they opened the New York Sewing Machine Exchange in the 700 block of West Baltimore Street. In 1941, his father bought 11 N. Eutaw St. and moved the company to the new location. Peisach, his two sisters and his parents lived in a three-bedroom apartment upstairs. His parents worked the store, and Peisach helped after school.

“My first job was putting belts on treadle machines,” said Peisach. “I couldn’t get into much trouble that way.”

Peisach “learned at the bench” as he described it, working side by side with his father. When he was 16, his father handed him the keys to the car and told him he was on delivery duty that day.

They sold both factory- and family-type sewing machines and did repairs. Many customers were one- and two-man tailor shops. Wardrobe mistresses with traveling shows appearing at Ford’s Theatre or the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre always stopped at the New York Sewing Machine Exchange to get their sewing machines tuned up. The Exchange worked with Towson University’s theater department through the 1970s.

Peisach took over the family business in 1961 and ran it through 1990, when he sold the company. Until a couple of years ago, Peisach worked with Hancock Fabrics, traveling to their stores and fixing their customers’ machines. Peisach needed a new gig. His wife had vacuums serviced at Weiner’s Vacs, and it gave Peisach an idea. Customers could drop their machines with Morris Weiner at Weiner’s Vacs, and he could bring them home for repairs. Historically, vacuums and sewing machines were often sold at the same store since they attract the same type of customer.

Peisach, who’s allergic to dust and dirt, had no interest in vacuums, and Weiner never worked with sewing machines.

“I thought it was a wonderful idea. Sewing machines and vacuums go hand in hand,” said Weiner. He added that he and Peisach were such old hands that they could practically tell what was wrong with a machine as the customer walked through the door.

Back in their Pikesville home, the “starter home” that they’ve lived in for 60 years, according to Barbara Peisach, the couple showed pictures of their nine grandchildren and served hamantashen and coffee with hazelnut creamer.

Peisach’s two sons and one daughter didn’t take up the family business, but Peisach has no plans to hang up his tools and stop repairing sewing machines.

“Old sewing machine guys don’t die,” he remarked. “They just stitch away.”

To contact Peisach for a repair, call 410-274-6161. He’ll even make house calls in the Northwest section of Baltimore.

Amy Lynwander is a local freelance writer.

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