“In the old days, sewing machine salesmen demonstrated their powerful, gear-driven machines by sewing right through a solid wooden ruler,” Ken Mekus told a customer recently. “And if you still have one of those old machines, chances are my wife Shirley can fix it,” he added proudly.
Ken and Shirley Mekus are the owners of Sewers Choice Sewing Machines at 337 E Fairmount Ave, Lakewood and 10387 Bennett Road, Fredonia, New York. Shirley represents the third generation of her family in the business. Her grandfather Heimbaugh built his highly profitable family business in the Dunkirk-Fredonia area, beginning in 1919, selling and repairing those old, reliable, foot powered treadle machines that were the icon of the well run home of that age.
Shirley’s dad continued in the business but passed away in his 40s, leaving the business, after passing through other family hands, to be sold by his wife to Shirley and Ken. They take obvious pride in their business success and expertise but, Ken said with a bemused smile, “owning your own business is not the prize it used to be.” Quality is a major issue today, according to Ken.
“We sell the best sewing machines on the market,” Ken said, “but today people think they can get a better deal on line or by shopping at one of those Big Box stores. Internet and mass market stores, however, either can’t service your machine or they fix it by throwing it away and selling you a new one. Their low prices are a false economy, but they can be tough competition for us.”
Shirley’s family work ethic also came naturally to Ken. At the age of 11 he lied and said he was 12 so he could get a paper route of his own to earn his own money. At the age of 15, he proudly bought himself his own shiny, turquoise Ford Mustang for $200.
“The most important ingredient in running a family business,” Ken said, “is integrity. You have to be honest with your prices and always sell the best product. Your name is on it.” Ken pointed to a long row of sewing machines of many sized, ages and brands. “We repair those every day. But if I find some nasty surprise that’s going to cost more, I also realize I should have seen it before I quoted a price to my customer. I just do the work and eat the extra cost. It isn’t the customer’s fault. That’s price honesty. Integrity.”
“I used to work in a factory,” Ken said. “I punched in and out, got regular pay checks and medical benefits. It paid the bills for a few years until we built the business up enough to make it our livelihood. My advice to anybody who wants to start their own business, of any kind; “Be strong, be prepared to work long hours, or don’t start.”
According to a business review published by the Associated Press in August, 2009, “Sewing is shedding its grandmotherly image and catching on among a younger generation trying to stay chic and original while saving a little money. Many see it as part of an overall yearning for self-sufficiency in uncertain times — similar to the trends toward cultivating home gardens or raising chickens in the backyard.
For customers who buy a new sewing machine at Sewer’s Choice, Shirley Mekus offers free sewing lessons. The trends in sewing, however, are shifting from the relatively basic skills of making a garment to more elaborate embroidering and quilting. “You can buy a machine today,” Ken said, “that you can start and walk away while it does the work for you. It has its own built-in computer and you can download programs to create almost anything you want to.”
According to Randy Thomas, senior vice president of the world’s largest sewing machine manufacturer, Janome America, sewing machine sales have almost doubled in the past decade…the recession has moved people to become more creative. “In 1999, there were about 1.4 million sewing machines imported into the United States,” Thomas said. “In 2008, that number went up to 2.21 million.”
Ken Mekus sells Brother sewing machines which sponsor TV Shows like Bravo’s “Project Runway.” The show is credited by some experts with inspiring a new generation of designer wannabes. Sewing enthusiasts are now said to value ingenuity, creativity and a desire for independence from mass-production clothing stores.
“When the economy goes down, the sewing industry goes up,” Thomas said. “People are looking for ways to save money by repairing garments instead of buying new ones or embellishing purchased garments.”
Mekus added that some mass produced clothing today is so poorly made that it is hardly worth fixing. “Sewing your own is often a better idea. The same idea about quality is also true for some modern sewing machines,” Mekus added with a knowing smile, quoting an old maxim of merchandising. “Cheap ain’t good and good ain’t cheap. I won’t sell a low quality machine. It will only come back to me as a complaint.”
Another trend reported by the sewing industry is ‘upcycling’ in which people use their own outdated garments or clothes from Goodwill or the Salvation Army and remake them into something ‘cooler’ or more chic.
As a local business owner, Mekus says there is a real advantage for customers to buy locally too. “Buy locally, learn locally and get service you can trust locally. If you buy it here, we’ll let you take it home and try it first, and give you free lessons after you own it.”
Sewer’s Choice also sells high quality vacuum cleaners, carpet shampooers and air purifiers. The phone numbers are 672-6900 and 763-0508.
The Rules in Sewing are the Rules for Good Living
- Know where your fingers are at all times
- No running with scissors
- Look before you cut