The longtime owner of Graceland Singer talks sewing, long-gone bars and clubs and his former life playing guitar in Columbus rock bands.
Steve Coats has quite a history in Columbus. Born in in 1947, Coats has lived here his whole life-and has repaired sewing machines for almost as long. I talked to him about the state of the sewing business then and now, his hobbies, and some of his favorite hangouts (most of which no longer exist). Coats owns Graceland Singer in Clintonville. See the June issue for more of his interview.
You've worked with sewing machines in Columbus your whole life. What have you seen happen to other local businesses?
Several of my buddies that I grew up with, they all own businesses. They've all been in the same business since they started. My best bud George-I just off the phone with him-we went to the first grade together. He owns Cousins Army Navy. When we were 16, he said, "There's an old empty building up on campus, I'm gonna start an Army-Navy store." I didn't have the money, so George did that with his cousin Mike who had about a hundred bucks at the time. I still see them. Jerry Fadley, he did the same thing. He owns his own insulation company. Started it when he was 19. We were all together just the other night. Now we're in our mid-60s but we all have lived here our whole lives and had businesses.
How has the sewing business itself progressed? Are you happy with the changes, if any?
When I was young in this business, everybody was a competitor. There was Singer, there was Viking, there was Pfaff. Even within the Singer branches you still had competition. You wanted to get the sale. I wanted to somehow have everybody in our industry in Columbus all be in it together. We're in the same business: We can do what you gotta do to sell our product, but we don't have to lie, we don't have to backstab each other. I've always believed we could all do what we do and still work together. And we have that now.
So there's much more community in the Columbus sewing world now?
Everybody in this business now talks to everybody, everybody knows everybody. It's really cool. I don't give lessons, so I send people to Sew to Speak. Jo-Ann Fabric, at one time-I wouldn't call want them an enemy-but they certainly were a competitor. Today, you walk into Jo-Ann Fabric with a Singer machine that needs repair, they say "Go up to Steve, here's his address." I do the same for them. They're not competition to me, but I'm in the business they're in and can pass people to them. It's like that pretty much all over town now. It really is a better system.
It's surprising it's like that now. That seems like a more old-fashioned mentality.
Just the opposite. It was war back in the day. And I would imagine car dealerships and things like that are probably still competitive that way. We have a lot of very nice people in the industry, and they're all pretty much born and raised in Columbus. They didn't like that whole thing anyway.
Let's talk less business and more hobbies.
My big hobby in life was always playing blues music. I'm a blues fanatic. When I was younger I was in a band called Dr. Feelgood. That was our band for about 20 years. Sean Carney was in it-he's on European tour right now-he was in our band from about 16 to his late 20s. It's amazing how many places will hire you to play if you just walk in, shake hands with them. That was in the '80s. We used to practice every Sunday at the Singer store. When it was all over, we had to clean up, put all the machines back and open for business Monday morning.
What's your favorite place in Columbus?
There's the years at the Sugar Shack. That was the most unique bar. That was down on 4th Street. That was the place to go. The Sugar Shack was huge, held like eight, nine hundred people. Big dance floor. We're talking '70s. Bob Seger was the house band. James Brown played there, Three Dog Night. These guys were all teenagers just starting out. That was a fabulous place.
That sounds amazing. Weren't you in a band then, in the '70s? Where did you play?
At that point I was in a rock band and we were playing at several different places on campus. I don't remember the names of those places … Mr. Brown's was definitely one... In its day, Mr. Brown's was the coolest. It was the place you'd go in and see guys in berets and everybody was cool. Like if you watch a movie from the '60s and think, No one actually talked or acted like that, and I know they didn't dress like that-no, they did, we all did. A lot of blues and jazz. Cool cats. I was one of them.