by Judy Rubin
I do not sew, am not into fashion and received the only “C’ on my middle school report card in sewing class. So what compelled me to visit and then write about the one and only Gaffney Fabric Store at 5401 Germantown Ave.?
Germantown Friends School is right across the street from Gaffney, and when I substitute in music at GFS or teach piano lessons there after school, I always feel like a kid in a candy store (or I should say fabric shop?) when I stop and stare through the windows of the corner store. They have a vast array and ever-changing display of fabrics, and in Joe Gaffney’s words, “It’s a democratic place, a United Nations” of people who come into the store.
Chubby Checker’s mother frequented the store. They get Project Runway contestants. A fellow who won first prize two or three years ago was Gaffney’s customer. Many customers to whom I talked told me they used to come in with their grandparents and parents, and now their grandchildren come in with them.
Among the main reasons they come in are variety of fabric, affordability, the nice people who work in the store, accessibility by public transportation and a means of inspiration. Germantown friends created a beautiful tile mosaic along the outside wall of the store that has “Gaffney, the Fabric of the Community” across it in tile letters.
Every year The Germantown United Community Development Corporation presents The Pillar of the Community award to a business that has provided outstanding service to the community. The award went to Gaffney this year.
The store, two huge floors, appearance unchanged from its inception, caters to Mennonites from Lancaster, upholsterers, bar owners, (one bought up a lot of vinyl to cover barstools), strippers, quilters, Banquet Halls, wedding planners (fabric for tablecloths, i.e.) and customers from all over the city. Imaginations run wild.
The store has 10 employees, part- and full-time. It serves over 100 customers a day.
Women who once were piece makers in factories went to work at other jobs when the factories closed. Now in their 70s and 80s, they have time to sew for themselves. There are people who buy in bulk and make custom clothes for clients. Spring is the busiest time; proms, Ramadan from May 14 to June 15. Lots of material is sold for beach sarongs, simple to make and wear on the beach.
Gaffney was originally the James S. Jones Department Store. Joe Gaffney, 71, bought the store in 1978 but had worked there in 1964 when it was a fabric store. Joe, an affable man, had many a story to tell. For example, when he first started working there, a customer came in and asked him if he had frogs. He said, “This is a fabric store. We don’t have frogs.”
He later found out from another employee that a frog is an ornamental fastener consisting of a button and a loop, for fastening the front of a garment.
Present day employees have had to translate such requests as “Do you have any crap?” (crepe) or a request for “fox fur” (faux fur).
On the more serious side, in 1979, during the U.S./Iran Hostage Crisis, the Gaffneys gave bolts of yellow ribbons to individuals and schools. They were used as symbols to support the U.S. hostages. (Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree.)
John Thompson, former basketball coach for Georgetown University, came into the store in the 1980s when his team was playing Villanova and purchased black ribbons for his basketball players to wear in protest of blacks who were being killed in Washington, D.C., at that time.
Lenore, Joe’s amazingly calm and kind wife, does everything, along with Joe, from cutting fabric for customers to attending to the nitty gritty of making the business run. They are fortunate in that the oldest of their four daughters, Kate, who works full-time and does the ordering, will eventually take over the business. Kate told me that nine fabric stores have closed in the city since 2010 because the next generation didn’t take over.
People now want to create something, she said, by going on YouTube and following the directions. For example, one woman came in to buy vinyl to make passport covers and embroiders on them. Doing quite well selling them on Etsy! Kate suggested material to another customer who wanted to make a dog bed. One woman wanted velvet as a background for her daughter’s graduation photo. Kate said she didn’t need such an expensive fabric and sold her a cheaper one.
“Mr. Tony” has been employed for 20 years there. He was in the military, the 101st Airborne Screaming Eagles. He retired from a design firm prior to working at Gaffney to organize a family reunion of 175 people, including his family from the Caribbean and his wife’s family from Ghana. Debbie, another employee, has worked for Gaffney for 10 years. She says that wherever she goes, she is recognized by a current or former Gaffney customer.
I spoke with two women who are close friends. Peggy has been coming here since 7th grade when “there was even a third floor.” She worked for the Philadelphia Costume Company, now defunct, that made Mummers costumes. Her friend Carol has come here for 30 years. They meet at the store, one from South Philly and one from North Philly.
Cynthia comes from Broad and Olney. She buys fabric to make cloth dolls and covers for books and has been coming to the store for 30 years. She works at a Walmart, makes clothes for herself and when asked to make a prom dress for someone’s daughter, says, “Absolutely, yes.”
For more information, call 215-849-8180 or visit www.gaffneyfabrics.com.