AUBURN – After a customer bought a sewing machine Tuesday,, Ron Blake had to stop himself from welcoming her to the Cote family, a greeting he and his wife, Lisa, have used for years.

He’ll miss little things like that when the shop closes.

Fifty-two years after it was founded as Cote Bros., Cote’s Sewing & Fabric Center in the Auburn Plaza will close on Dec. 24.

The business was started all those years ago by Lisa Blake’s father and his brothers to serve the then-bustling shoe industry. There were 55 shoe shops in Lewiston-Auburn, Ron said, and they’d call on Cote Bros. to mill industrial sewing machine parts.

“Throat plates, feed dogs, we used to make them hundreds at a time,” Ron said. “This was the shoe capital of the world.”

Texas was tops in shoe sales, he says, but Maine was No. 1 in pairs produced.

“(New Balance) still buys a lot of parts from us. I haven’t told them yet,” Ron said.

He believes the shop is one of the largest dealers in New England and one of the oldest sewing machine dealers in the United States. Cote’s has sold machines to Maine schools, colleges and the prison system. They have a loyal customer base of about 5,000 whom he and Lisa are reluctant to leave.

However, “Maine is extremely difficult to do business,” Ron said.

The shop came close to closing several times in the 1990s.

“It was just incredible until NAFTA came in. Overnight, it almost killed us,” he said. Under the North American Free Trade Agreement, manufacturers sent work to Mexico, South America and China.

The business had to reinvent itself, closing its machine shop, selling off equipment, picking up the Bernina line of machines in addition to Brother and focusing on retail in the fall of 2001.

Partly, the closing now is a sign of the economic times. Sales this summer were good, but then September was down 12 percent and October, 40 percent.

“We didn’t want to borrow any more money and we decided it was time to get off the roller coaster,” Ron said. “High-end machines, I’ve sold as many as seven, eight a month. Since we announced our 40 percent off sale, I haven’t sold one.”

They asked their three sons if they were interested in carrying on the family business, and they said no. Ron will continue to do service and warranty work after the closure.

One of their 12 employees, Natalie Simard of Leeds, is looking into buying the Bernina franchise and opening a local sewing shop. She’s having a hard time finding a bank willing to lend money. Some customers have considered teaming up to try to help her.

“(Natalie’s) a wonderful educator. She’s been sewing since 4-H,” Ron said.

Not having the store and its stress will be good for the Turner couple’s health, Lisa said, but it’s still heart-breaking.

“To this day, I’m sad, I’m mad, I’m glad,” Ron said.

Tuesday, he put on Christmas carols to lift his mood.

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