AUBURN — Brothers Chris and Tim Riley have been in business together for more than a decade in a few ventures. Photography. High-tech keyboards. Summer camp gear.

They needed space to grow and a good location, somewhere between Chris in Fayette and Tim in Cape Elizabeth.

Last October, on Halloween, the brothers bought Fabric Warehouse at 104 Washington St. They knew nothing about fabric, but as Chris told a friend: “Nothing I can’t learn.”

In 90 days, they’ve more than doubled the inventory and have big plans, among them adding a new roof and insulation.

It turns out the aging crafters’ landmark isn’t insulated and, they quickly discovered, shakes whenever a train goes by. It’s part of everything they’re rolling with as they learn the business from scratch.

Chris said he’s been struck by how many people buy fabric to support their own side businesses.

“One of our better customers is one of the top sellers on Etsy,” he said.

The brothers grew up in Portland. Chris remembers tagging along with their mother on Fabric Warehouse errands — “Oh, god, really, the fabric store again, are you kidding me?” — and gaining his own appreciation a bit later, when he got into boating and had to sew sail covers and awnings.

The business dates back to 1955. Longtime owner Dan Mathews died in 2013 and it was during a trip to the store last year that Chris heard Fabric Warehouse might close. He asked how to reach the family, ruminated, and called Tim.

His pitch: “I have a really, really dumb idea — let’s go buy a fabric store.”

“I said, ‘You’re right. That’s a really, really dumb idea,'” Tim said. Then, “OK.”

Part of the draw was the building’s extra space. One of their companies, Summer Camp Supply, had run out of room in Fayette. It’s a Web-only businesses that works with summer camps on kids’ packing lists, offering a one-stop-shop for camp-approved gear, from flip-flops to rain pants.

The goal is to offer a range of price points, Chris said, to keep camp in reach for everyone. Sleeping bags on one packing list, for instance, span from $149.95 to a $30 rental, but all four versions of the bags have been signed off on by that specific camp.

“It’s a safety issue,” Tim said. “If they want you to bring a wool sweater and you show up in cotton and it gets wet, you’re not safe.”

That business will be housed in back; it won’t have a public face.

All four of Mathews’ employees stayed on. The goal now, Chris said, is to get ready for summer’s busy season and slowly get 4,000-plus fabrics and accessories online to grow Web sales.

“We’re really trying to get the word out that we’re happy to ship,” Tim said.

About 50 percent of Fabric Warehouse’s inventory of wools, cottons, linens and leathers is one-offs, fabrics that won’t come around again, sometimes bought as the last in a supplier’s run, frequently at a steep discount. Customers, they’ve noticed, have been longtime and loyal.

About half, Tim said, “come through the door and say, ‘Is this Sharlaine’s?'” despite that name being retired decades ago by Mathews.

“The sewing community and the DIY community is growing,” Tim said. “If they see prices the same or lower than what they were, nobody cares” if the new owners might look a little young or have a learning curve.

It gave their mother a good laugh, Chris said, when he called her with a guess-what-we’re-doing.

“She thinks it’s a stitch,” he said.

[email protected]


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: