Fabric-ating an exit strategy
Eagle River sisters wind down their careers doing what they enjoy
Story and photos by Laurie Lenten
For Northwoods ‘boomers And Beyond
On most Saturday mornings, the Kalous sisters – Barb and Jackie – can be found snuggled up inside the building that once housed Dyna Manufacturing, working on their sewing projects. After a long week working their separate businesses, the sisters walk from their house next door, put on the coffee, and rendezvous around the eight foot by eight foot centerpiece cutting table that defines the space they refer to as their “sewing room.”
Some sure giveaways that this is more than a private sewing room is the name etched on the building’s plate glass window, which reads, Venerabilia, LLC, in flowery cursive script, and the sign on the front door that says “open.”
“The whole point of all of this was that Jackie and I wanted a sewing room. That was it,” says Barb as she takes a seat at her desk in the office that is now adjacent to the sewing room.
“We wanted a sewing room so we could spread out and do our sewing. We wanted a place where we could put all of the fabrics and supplies we inherited from our older sister, Darlene, after she passed away. She was an interior decorator,” says Barb as way of laying the groundwork for the circuitous story that has brought the sisters back to Eagle River – where they grew up, got their start in life, and are now settling back into for retirement.
Barb laughs at the word.
“We’ve already retired three times between us,” she says.
Now nearing their mid-fifties, the sisters have launched into what Barb calls their “exit strategy” for their one-day-to-come final retirement. It all started, she says, last year when Barb had 5,000 flyers printed and inserted into local publications for distribution.
The flyers were not so much the promotion of a new business as they were a testing of the waters so to speak. When the phone started to ring…and ring…and ring some more, Barb knew she was onto something.
Venerabilia was born.
“I simply wanted feedback on the idea of having a sewing store that sold all those things that accumulate in sewing rooms – fabrics, buttons, sewing machines, needles, etcetera, and within the first six hours we got 47 phone calls,” says Barb, “and by July 18 we had 500 people walk through our sewing room turned sewing store.”
Things really began to come into focus when a lady called the store saying she was looking to sell her late friend’s fabrics and sewing supplies.
“It’s an amazing story, but it happens all the time, really. If someone has sewn for years and years they accumulate a lot of stuff and the question is – what happens to all that stuff when the person passes away? I’ll tell you what happens, it gets tossed. Your family doesn’t want it and it ends up being discarded.
So I got a call from a woman whose good friend had passed away and she wanted to sell her fabrics. She was going to try to sell it on Ebay, but she found our flyer. She agreed to catalog the fabric and we would price it and sell it in our store keeping a percentage of the sale for our time and space. To date she has cataloged over 3,000 yards of fabric and she’s still working through it all,” says Barb.
The concept behind Venerabilia is providing the space where others can sell their used sewing items. A browse through the store reveals more than a little bit of everything, including fabrics, yarns, knitting and crochet needles, sewing patterns, books, buttons (over 70,000 by Barb’s estimation), felt, lace, elastic and just about every other kind of notion and bric-a-brac you can imagine.
Prices are minimal. According to Barb, fabrics are kept in the $6 to $8 a yard range while notions sell for ten cents and up.
Barb says, “It’s kind of like digging through a grandma’s sewing basket when you visit. You don’t know what you’re going to find, but if you have something special in mind that you’re looking for we probably have it. Somewhere.”
The somewhere could be anywhere from her back room storage areas that are filled with bins upon bins of yet to be gone through sewing items, as well as her other store in Land O’Lakes.
Yes, says Barb, there are now two stores, which came about like most of the other things in her life have – quickly and through the chance of being in the right place at the right time.
“I was approached by a member of Vilas County Economic Development Corporation and asked to do in Land O’Lakes what I’m doing here. This member had a building up there and asked us to come and start some pop-up shops,” says Barb, who is now using what she has learned through the Nicolet Area Technical College Entrepreneurial Training course to help other start-up endeavors.
“It’s like a pre-incubator practice ground that currently houses a baker, a carver, and a goat cheese maker,” says Barb, “It’s the phase in these start-ups where the entrepreneur is testing the waters and learning to work their business, learning what is involved in running a successful business.”
And both Barb and Jackie know a thing or two about what it takes to work a business. From their adjoining desks in their spacious office, the sisters currently operate three businesses – Yellow Birch Cleaning, Gypsy Sisters Property Management, and Venerabilia.
Barb attributes her and her sister’s work ethic to growing up at the Silver Beach Resort on Yellow
Birch Lake in Eagle River, which was started by their parents Emil and Gertrude back in the mid-1960s.
“Our dad never told us we couldn’t do something so we just figured we could,” she says with a laugh, “When I got to high school I was shocked to discover that the other girls didn’t know how to sharpen a mower blade, back up a boat trailer or change a tire. We just did what had to be done and figured it out as we went along.”
Barb says she and Jackie are still figuring it out as they go along.
Between them they have two lifetimes of experiences to bring to the table including Barb’s six years in the Army, teaching Community Education classes at Nicolet College, and operating two tattoo/body piercing shops in Rhinelander and Minocqua, as well as Jackie’s years as an elevator mechanic in Chicago. They’ve been married, raised children, raced stock cars and ridden motorcycles. They’ve traveled.
And now they’re doing what they enjoy – spending Saturday mornings together in their to-die-for sewing room, which, says Barb, is a place they want others to enjoy, too.
“We love to help people with their projects, give tips, let others use our cutting table to match up their pieces,” she says.
Classes in looming, quilting, and acrylic pouring are a possibility somewhere down the road, says Barb, as well as sewing machine rentals, but for now Barb is taking it one day at a time living the motto she and Jackie practice on those cold winter Saturday mornings…“Never underestimate the joy of fabric.”
You can find Barb at Venerabilia, located at 4045 Hwy 70 E (a quarter mile past the Eagle River Hockey Arena), Monday through Wednesday, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. For more information, log onto www.venerabilia.com.